President Joe Biden on Friday again touted his recent marijuana pardons proclamation, but indicated that he has no intention of granting relief to people who are in prison for selling cannabis.
“I’m keeping my promise that no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana,” he said. “None. And the records, which hold up people from being able to get jobs and the like, should be totally expunged. Totally expunged.”
“You can’t sell it,” the president added. “But if it’s just use, you’re completely free.”
The comments come as activists are planning a protest including civil disobedience at the White House for Monday aimed at calling attention to those who are left behind by Biden’s existing cannabis clemency action.
It’s not clear if the president’s latest remarks simply describe the scope of his current marijuana pardons, which came alongside a separate move to review the drug’s current scheduling status under federal law, or if they are an indication he is ruling out broadening the scope of clemency relief in the future.
The latter scenario would be a great disappointment to the advocates behind the planned White House protest.
Those groups, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Last Prisoner Project, DCMJ and others, sent a letter to Biden this month, calling his moves to date “a great first step” but saying they “did nothing to address the thousands of federal cannabis prisoners currently incarcerated.”
Indeed, the clemency only impacts about 6,500 people who’ve committed the federal possession offense and those who’ve violated the law in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) detailed the demographics of those who received a pardon in a recent analysis.
Multiple groups, including immigrants and those who’ve been charged with selling marijuana, were excluded from the presidential pardon. There are an estimated 2,800 people currently in federal prison for marijuana convictions that aren’t limited to simple possession.
“We would prefer not to have to escalate our protests, however your administration has thus far refused to release our incarcerated neighbors, friends, and family members and it is therefore our moral duty to mobilize sufficient public attention to your lack of action on this urgent injustice that you promised to address,” the activists’ letter to Biden says.
“Under your watch, billions of dollars are being made for wealthy corporations, while real people, disproportionately people of color, are wasting their lives in cages,” they wrote.
The activists have highlighted Biden’s cannabis comments during the 2020 presidential campaign in which he said that “anyone who has a record should be let out of jail.”
Biden, for his part, said in a separate speech earlier this week that he is “keeping my promise” on marijuana with the current limited clemency move.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department and U.S. Department and Health and Human Services (HHS) have committed to quickly carry 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.
Meanwhile, 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 week 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.