By: Jordan Chan
President Joe Biden announced an executive order to pardon past convictions of marijuana possession on Oct. 6, a sweeping action that will affect over 6,500 Americans charged with possession at the federal level. Biden also revealed plans to expedite a review of marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 drug. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland will head this review.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration defines Schedule 1 substances as those that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The federal government criminalized marijuana, listing it in this category, in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Contrary to federal law, 37 states, the District of Columbia, and four US territories currently permit medical usage of marijuana, and 19 states have legalized the drug for recreational use. Biden explained, “[marijuana’s classification is] the same as heroin and LSD and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense.”
Although Biden has not called for the complete decriminalization of marijuana-related offenses, many see his order as a step in this direction. In a public video statement, Biden stated, “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.” To justify his decision, he cited long, harsh sentencing and the negative effects of convictions on employment, housing, and educational opportunities. A report from the Pew Research Center in October of 2021 suggests that a majority of Americans agree with Biden’s decision, with 67 percent of the general public favoring the release of people imprisoned solely for marijuana-related offenses.
Biden has also recognized the disproportionate negative impact of anti-drug laws on certain demographic groups, namely Black and Latino communities. In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union published research “showing that Black people are 3.64 times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable marijuana usage rates.” This discrepancy persists to this day. Patrice Willoughby, a leading executive at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, asserted that Biden’s order “is a step towards restorative justice.”
Some Republicans have condemned Biden for his position, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who called the pardons “a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership…in the midst of a crime wave,” on Twitter. Some Democrats suspect the pardons will give them a boost in the upcoming midterm elections.
While the executive order will positively affect thousands, it will not erase convictions at the state level. Biden called on lawmakers and state governors to pardon marijuana-related crimes: “Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
(Sources: NY Times, Washington Post, NPR, Reuters, AP, ACLU, Twitter, Pew Research Center, USA Today, US DEA)
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