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Congressional Lawmakers Want ‘Urgent’ Update From Biden On Marijuana Pardons As Holidays Approach

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It’s been almost ten months since a coalition of 37 congressional lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to use executive authority to issue mass pardons for people with federal marijuana convictions on their records. Lawmakers are growing impatient, and now they’ve sent a follow-up letter to “urgently request” an update as the holiday season approaches.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) wrote to the president last week that many Americans “remain behind bars due to racially discriminatory cannabis policies and continue to accrue criminal fees.”

“To begin rectifying the damage done by these discriminatorily implemented policies and reunite families before the holidays, we reiterate our ask that you use your executive authority to pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated,” they said. “We further write to specify that all federal criminal fines and fees be cancelled for all nonviolent cannabis offenses.”

This has become a familiar request over the course of Biden’s first year in office. Advocates, lawmakers, celebrities and others have repeatedly pressed the president to made good on his campaign pledge and provide relief to those with cannabis convictions.

Yet so far, the only pardons to take place under the Biden administration have benefited turkeys at a ceremonial Thanksgiving event.

“Many Americans do not believe we should take a punitive approach to marijuana and have already benefited significantly from efforts to loosen or eliminate cannabis regulations at the local or state level,” the congressional trio wrote, noting that polls show strong public support for marijuana reform.

“As the American public continues to voice its pro-legalization position, it’s important that the Black and brown communities most directly harmed by past and current cannabis laws are able to directly benefit from legalization efforts, which includes small business opportunities,” the letter continues. “In addition to economic development opportunities, timely legalization could help save lives and stem the continuing opioid crisis in our nation.”

They further said that fees and fines imposed by the criminal justice system “have also historically had a racially discriminatory impact on local communities,” and so the “federal government has a moral responsibility to stand against this system of structural racism and incentivize municipalities to follow suit.”

“Congress must act to reimagine our nation’s cannabis policies, but we firmly believe that you have the power to take decisive action to begin this necessary work,” they wrote, adding that the House Judiciary Committee approved a comprehensive legalization bill in the months since they sent their first letter on mass cannabis pardons.

“While this bill would make considerable progress towards overhauling American cannabis policies, you maintain the unilateral power to take transformative important action by issuing a blanket pardon of all non-violent federal cannabis offenses. Just as previous presidents have used executive authority to issue blanket pardons consistent with our values that benefit the American people, this is an opportunity for you to uphold commitments made during the campaign and revitalize communities across the country.”

“Therefore, we again urge you to utilize your power to pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses and cancel all related federal fines and fees, so that we can reunite families and communities in time for the winter holidays,” the letter concludes.

This letter comes about a month after 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.

That letter came just as the administration started encouraging about 1,000 people who were temporarily placed on home confinement for federal drug offenses to fill out clemency application forms.

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.

Biden has faced criticism from drug policy reform advocates who’ve grown frustrated that he’s yet to make good on campaign promises such as decriminalizing marijuana possession. The president also campaigned on expunging prior cannabis records and respecting the rights of states to set their own laws.

Since taking office, however, his administration has made little progress on any of those pledges and has instead fired its own White House staffers over marijuana and sought to extend a budget provision that has blocked Washington, D.C. from legalizing cannabis sales.

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.

Read the new letter to Biden on marijuana pardons below: 

Click to access 120221_final-marijuana-commutation-fee-waiver-letter.pdf

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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