As a Senator in 1994, Joe Biden helped pass a crime bill that included mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession. Twenty-five years later, presidential candidate Joe Biden softened his stance on the issue as he pledged to free people incarcerated for marijuana.
While he was on the campaign trail, Biden repeated the rhetoric on multiple occasions. “No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As president, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
Biden was consistently vocal about the matter prior to taking office, but as we approach the halfway point of his term, President Biden has been very silent in regards to his verbal campaign commitment on cannabis policy reform.
On Thursday, October 6, the president finally took his first step towards decriminalization by pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. Biden also encouraged governors to follow his lead and pardon those convicted on similar state charges due to the fact that the vast majority of convictions for marijuana possession are at the state level. The announcement came thirty-three days before the midterm elections.
In addition to decriminalization, President Biden also requested a review of the process of how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Currently, the United States classifies marijuana at the same level as heroin. The president is insisting that the Attorney General and Health & Human Services reclassify marijuana because if it’s brought down to a lesser degree, marijuana could be tested as a potential medical treatment.
When the news broke as it relates to the president’s pardon decision, some inmates who are serving time for dealing marijuana started celebrating until the fine print was read out loud. Currently, there are approximately 2,700 federal marijuana inmates, but none of them will get out of jail because Biden’s pardons applies to the 6,500 people convicted federally of simple possession. Ironically only a small fraction of people who make up the grouping of simple possession convictions are currently serving time in prison.
Critics of the president’s pardon ruling label it as an act of giving false hope and a midterm elections stunt. The move won’t equate to the release of a large number of inmates, but the policy will remove barriers people face from having a criminal record based on a marijuana charge.
The announcement of the pardon has caused a bit of confusion due to President Biden’s verbage. In a recent tweet, Biden posted: “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction.”
The president goes on to speak about a failed approach to marijuana, but he doesn’t clearly emphasize the guidelines for his ruling. Biden’s failure to be specific gave many inmates false hope. The new ruling only applies to simple possession. It will not apply to charges such as conspiracy, distribution, or possession with the intent to distribute.
Despite President Biden issuing pardons for federal charges of simple marijuana possession, it doesn’t decriminalize the drug, and it remains a federal crime to possess small amounts of marijuana on federal land. Biden’s latest move doesn’t legalize marijuana but represents the most aggressive White House effort to change the cannabis policy nationwide.
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