President Joe Biden told college students at a rally on the eve of Election Day that the fate of marijuana reform rests on their votes. The comments came as the White House is separately touting the president’s recent cannabis pardons and scheduling review as part of the administration’s plan to promote “equity and fairness in the justice system” to support the Black community.
“With your vote, I’m keeping my promise [that] no one should be in jail for the mere possession of marijuana, and their record should be expunged,” Biden said during the event at Bowie State University, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
“Remember, the power is in your hands,” he said. “You’re one of the reasons why I’ve never been more optimistic about America’s future.”
In a separate statement on the White House website detailing steps that have been taken to uplift Black Americans, the administration included a section on Biden’s cannabis pardon proclamation and directive for an administrative review of marijuana’s federal scheduling status.
“President Biden believes that it is time that we acknowledge the legacy of systemic racism in our criminal justice system and work together to eliminate the racial disparities that endure to this day,” the document, posted on Sunday, says. “Doing so serves all Americans.”
To that end, the administration touted marijuana reform actions, which the president previously described as one way that he’s improved the lives of Black Americans in particular.
“President Biden repeatedly said during his campaign, no one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana,” the statement says. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.”
The statement contains much of the same general language from an earlier overview of efforts to help Black Americans that the administration released in June, but that earlier version predated the pardons and scheduling review and didn’t mention cannabis at all.
“In addition, although white and Black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” the new document continues. “The President recently took three steps to end this failed approach and to begin to right these wrongs.”
Those steps were: 1) issuing a mass pardon for thousands of people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses, 2) asking governors to follow suit with state-level relief and 3) directing agencies to carry out a scientific review into the federal scheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
The state-level request to governors isn’t binding, but the new statement says it’s a key component “because just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
“Finally, even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place,” the cannabis section concludes.
While a majority of Americans believe that federal marijuana prohibition should end altogether, Biden has consistently emphasized the limitations of the relief, signaling on several occasions that he does not intend to extend pardons to people with sales convictions, for example.
But those limitations have also become a subject of criticism among advocates.
Just last week, more than 130 immigrations and civil rights organizations sent a letter to Biden, imploring him to extend his marijuana possession pardon proclamation to anyone regardless of immigration status.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) similarly said late last month that the president’s marijuana pardon proclamation should be “applauded,” but the action is nonetheless critically limited because it exempts non-citizens who constitute the vast majority of federal possession cases.
Meanwhile, activists with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Last Prisoner Project (LPP) and DCMJ staged protests outside of the White House last month to demand that Biden release the estimated 2,800 people currently in federal prison for marijuana convictions that aren’t limited to simple possession.
The White House drug czar recently cheered Biden’s “historic” move to issue a mass marijuana pardon and direct an administrative review of the drug’s scheduling status. And he is again highlighting that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis—which he says shouldn’t be ignored because of separate concerns about youth use.
The Justice Department and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has said officials will “work as quickly as we can” to complete the analysis of cannabis scheduling per the president’s directive.
The Department of Justice, for its part, “will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense,” a department spokesperson said.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said that officials will be working diligently to ensure that people who received a pardon for federal marijuana offenses under the presidential proclamation are not impeded from future job opportunities.
Vice President Kamala Harris said last month that voters should elect lawmakers who support marijuana reform so that Congress can enact a “uniform approach” to the issue in light of the president’s cannabis pardons.
A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.