President Joe Biden has “every intention of using his clemency power,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. But while the administration is “looking at” relief for non-violent drug offenders, she again declined to give specifics about when any presidential action might actually happen.
Advocates and some lawmakers have grown impatient with the president as his first year in office comes to a close. Biden campaigned on cannabis reform, promising that he would push for decriminalization, rescheduling and ensuring that people aren’t locked up over marijuana.
Marijuana Moment partnered with More Perfect Union this week to shed light on exactly what Biden’s administration can when it comes to cannabis. Watch below:
— More Perfect Union (@MorePerfectUS) December 21, 2021
Asked at a press briefing whether Biden would be following the tradition of issuing pardons or commutations “in the spirit of the holiday” as the year comes to an end, Psaki said simply, “I don’t have anything to preview at this time.”
“I would just reiterate that the president has every intention of using his clemency power,” she said. “And there has been some reporting which is accurate out there about looking at non-violent drug offenders, but I don’t have anything to update you on at this point in time.”
There were rumors that Biden would take one modest clemency action this holiday season by granting pardons to people with low-level convictions, including for drugs, who were released to home confinement as part of a COVID-19 bill that he signed early this year.
But while the Justice Department initially said that it was required to send those people back to prison after the emergency lifted, it reversed that policy on Tuesday, explaining that it had reviewed additional materials and agreed that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is afforded more discretion. Now DOJ says those on home confinement do not need to be sent back en masse, and BOP can look at each case individually to determine the course of action.
“We hope clemency remains on the table for those who no longer warrant home confinement,” FAMM President Kevin Ring, who personally received a call from Attorney General Merrick Garland about the decision, said in a press release on Tuesday. “But for now, today’s decision will ease a lot of concerns and fears.”
Prior to the DOJ announcement, it was reported that the Biden administration had started encouraging about 1,000 people who were temporarily placed on home confinement for federal drug offenses to fill out clemency application forms.
In any case, the president is facing pressure on multiple fronts to do something unilaterally on cannabis reform.
“Biden needs to lean on his executive authority now. He has been delaying and underutilizing it so far,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said on Tuesday, adding that he could use his authority to advance a number of progressive causes like marijuana reform.
The congresswoman was among the first to suggest that Biden use executive authority to advance marijuana reform, joining 36 of her colleagues on a letter to the president in February that implored him to grant mass pardons to people with federal cannabis convictions. Biden recently received a follow-up letter demanding a status update.
A pair of Republican lawmakers last week sent Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris a separate letter criticizing their “lack of action” and “continued silence” on marijuana reform and urging the administration to reschedule cannabis under federal law. They first made the request in July.
These are just the latest examples of legislators taking a demand for reform directly to the president, who has disappointed advocates in his first year in office by declining to take meaningful steps to change the country’s approach to cannabis despite campaigning on a pro-decriminalization and pro-rescheduling platform.
Since the election, neither the president or vide president—who sponsored a legalization bill while serving in the Senate—have spoken about their cannabis campaign pledges. And so far, the only pardons to take place under the Biden administration have benefited turkeys at a ceremonial Thanksgiving event.
That’s despite the repeated pleas of lawmakers and advocates.
Last month, a group of senators separately sent a letter urging Biden to use his executive authority to grant a mass pardon for people with non-violent marijuana convictions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who led that letter, said during a recent interview that Biden could boost the economy and promote racial equity with the “stroke of a pen” by granting the relief.
A recently published Congressional Research Service (CRS) report affirmed that the president has it within his power to grant mass pardons for cannabis offenses. It also said that the administration can move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.
Relatedly, a group of more than 150 celebrities, athletes, politicians, law enforcement professionals and academics signed a letter that was delivered to Biden in September, urging him to issue a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all people with non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
Warren and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) separately sent a letter to the attorney general in October, making the case that the Justice Department should initiate a marijuana descheduling process in order to “allow states to regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws, and facilitate valuable medical research.”
The White House said in August that the president was looking into using his executive authority to grant clemency to people with certain non-violent drug convictions.
In April, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was pressed on Biden’s clemency promise for people with federal marijuana and said that process will start with modestly rescheduling cannabis—a proposal that advocates say wouldn’t actually accomplish what she’s suggesting.
Moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act, as Biden is proposing, wouldn’t facilitate mass clemency given that being convicted for crimes related to drugs in that slightly lower category—which currently includes cocaine—also carries significant penalties.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.