President Joe Biden on Friday issued a proclamation expanding a marijuana pardon initiative he began last year by including for the first time people who committed cannabis possession offenses on federal properties.
“Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said in a statement. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” the president continued. “That’s why I continue to urge governors to do the same with regard to state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.”
Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.
I continue to urge Governors to do the same with state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 22, 2023
The expanded pardon proclamation comes as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is considering a recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services to reschedule cannabis to Schedule III that stemmed from a review that Biden initiated last year in conjunction with his initial marijuana clemency move.
While advocates have welcomed the president’s actions on marijuana, they have critically pointed out that his cannabis-focused pardons have not released anyone from prison and exclude large groups of people, including immigrants and those with convictions for selling marijuana.
Friday’s expanded proclamation notes that it, like its predecessor, “does not apply to individuals who were non-citizens not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offense” and does not cover “possession of marijuana with intent to distribute or driving offenses committed while under the influence of marijuana.”
Its scope covers federal and Washington, D.C. offenses for “simple possession of marijuana, attempted simple possession of marijuana, or use of marijuana, regardless of whether they have been charged with or prosecuted for these offenses on or before the date of this proclamation,” meaning that it will cover people who committed cannabis possession crimes subsequent to Biden’s initial October 2022 pardon.
First, I’m commuting the sentences of 11 people who are serving disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
All of them would have been eligible to receive significantly lower sentences if they were charged with the same offense today.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 22, 2023
Biden on Friday also commuted the sentences of 11 people who are serving long sentences for drug offenses.
“I have exercised my clemency power more than any recent predecessor has at this point in their presidency. And while today’s announcement marks important progress, my Administration will continue to review clemency petitions and deliver reforms that advance equal justice, address racial disparities, strengthen public safety, and enhance the wellbeing of all Americans.”
In the year since the president first pardoned several thousands of people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses, Biden has repeatedly pointed to the action as an example of how he’s fulfilling campaign promises—though he’s frequently misstated the scope of the clemency by suggesting people were released from prison and had their criminal records fully expunged.
A presidential pardon represents formal forgiveness for the violation, but it does not constitute an expungement, which typically involves sealing records.
While the action symbolically recognizes the country’s “failed approach” to marijuana policy, it also falls short of the president’s pledges to more holistically enact reform by federally legalizing medical cannabis and decriminalizing the plant.
✅@POTUS commuted the sentences of 11 individuals currently serving disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug offenses
✅@POTUS issued a Proclamation that pardons additional offenses of simple possession and use of marijuana under federal and D.C. law
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) December 22, 2023
If DEA ultimately accepts the HHS recommendation to move marijuana to Schedule III, that would not legalize it. However, it would have a meaningful impact in other ways, for example by removing widely criticized research barriers and allowing state-licensed cannabis businesses to take federal tax deductions they’re currently barred from under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E.
The immediate reaction to Biden’s expanded pardon on Friday has been largely consistent with the response to his initial act of clemency, with advocates describing it as another positive step, but one that should be coupled with a push to comprehensively end marijuana criminalization.
Despite the fact that public support for legalization has reached record highs, especially among the Democratic base, the president has declined to embrace the broader reform. After Ohio became the 24th state to enact legalization last month, for example, the White House affirmed that “nothing has changed” with Biden’s position on the issue.