It was one year ago on Friday that President Joe Biden issued a mass marijuana pardon and directed an administrative scheduling review. Lawmakers and advocates say it’s time to do more.
While there is broad based consensus among reform supporters that the president’s action last year represented a positive step in the right direction, on this first anniversary they’re emphasizing that it was exactly that: just a step and not, by any means, the end of the federal government’s war on cannabis.
“President Biden must send clearer signals that he understands and supports full legalization,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment.
“His pardons and initiating the scheduling review were an important step forward, but more is needed. That includes re-issuing the Cole Memo protections and making it a priority to work with Congress to finally rationalize our federal cannabis laws,” he said, referencing Obama-era guidance on deprioritizing federal cannabis enforcement that was rescinded under the Trump administration.
Biden’s pardon affected several thousand people who had committed federal cannabis possession offenses, but advocates were quick to point out the limitations of the relief. Whole classes of people, including immigrants and those charged with selling marijuana, were left out. And it did not release anyone from federal prison or prevent future possession prosecutions after the pardon declaration.
“One year ago today, the president officially recognized that the federal government’s approach to cannabis is antiquated,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), another co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment. “While I applauded his cannabis expungement and rescheduling efforts, I have witnessed little application and progress over the last year.”
“That’s why I am laser-focused on bipartisan cannabis legislation in Congress” such as bills to incentivize state-level marijuana expungements, prepare the federal government for legalization and protect banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses that he’s sponsoring.
The measures “will force the administration’s hand to put action behind their words and deliver immediate relief to those suffering from unjust federal prohibition,” Joyce said.
For the last year, Biden has repeatedly touted the cannabis pardons, often citing the action as evidence that he’s fulfilling campaign promises that benefit Black and brown communities, while using it to appeal to younger voters. But at the same time, he’s misrepresented the scope of the relief, stating at times that people were released from prison and had their records expunged.
In reality, the presidential pardon simply represents formal forgiveness for the possession offense, without directly impacting a person’s criminal record. The Justice Department has started issuing pardon certifications, but those are principally symbolic documents.
The limited clemency action also falls short of Biden’s campaign pledge to federally decriminalize marijuana and legalize medical cannabis.
— BOWL PAC (@TheBOWLPAC) October 5, 2023
“President Biden has repeatedly acknowledged that marijuana criminalization is harmful and responsible for racial disparities,” Cat Packer, vice chair of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) and director of drug markets and legal regulation at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Marijuana Moment.
“The question at this point is whether or not this is just a talking point or if the president is willing to use the full extent of his authority to end criminalization, address racial disparities and advance marijuana reform that promotes equity—steps that we know won’t be accomplished through the administrative review process and moving marijuana to Schedule III,” she said.
Under the president’s directive, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spent 11 months reviewing the science of cannabis and reached a conclusion that it should be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is now taking that recommendation and carrying out its own review before making a final scheduling determination.
While placing cannabis in Schedule III would have impacts such as removing a federal tax barrier known as 280E for the cannabis industry, as Packer noted, it would not legalize marijuana, nor would it achieve equity goals long sought after by reform advocates.
“We need to end criminalization by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and develop a modern framework that promotes equity, public health and safety,” she said. “Both President Biden and Congress have not only an opportunity—but also a responsibility to bring about these desperately needed and overdue reforms with urgency and intention.”
Packer was one of several advocates and experts to participate in a webinar on Thursday that laid out a “three-part roadmap” of next steps for the president.
The first part, presented by Parabola Center CEO and founder Shaleen Title, is to issue updated Justice Department guidance on deprioritizing marijuana-related enforcement against individuals as well as businesses, reducing cannabis sentencing and ending the practice of deporting people over marijuana.
“President Biden has proven himself to be one of the most committed leaders in modern history when it comes to supporting workers and standing up to Big Pharma. We hope to collaborate with his administration to move toward his goals for equity and justice,” Title said.
There are incremental steps that can be taken right now in the right direction — away from a big pharma monopoly and criminalization, and toward a regulatory framework for marijuana that protects all of us.
— Parabola Center (@ParabolaCenter) October 4, 2023
Maritza Perez Medina, director of the Office of Federal Affairs at DPA, described the second ask, which is for Biden to “expand pardons and commutations beyond simple marijuana possession, including both civilian and military offenses, and that he address collateral consequences by restoring benefits for those who have previous convictions,” while also calling on states “to do the same.”
Natacha Andrews, founder and director of the National Association of Black Cannabis Lawyers (NABCL) said the president must explicitly voice support for federal marijuana legalization to help spur Congress into action.
“While President Biden has taken some well publicized steps to mitigate the devastating effects of cannabis prohibition—including last year’s pardon announcement—it’s time for our industry and advocacy movement to unite around the need to ensure that no person should be serving time for a plant and encourage the president to use the full power of the presidency to end the devastating effects of prohibition on communities of color until Congress finally acts to fully deschedule,” Kaliko Castille, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), told Marijuana Moment.
“Given the historical context of both President Biden and Vice President Harris’s opposition to ending cannabis prohibition throughout their careers, the steps they have taken shouldn’t be understated, but my fear is the opposite—that we overstate the impact of federal pardons or a potential rescheduling—and take our eye off the prize,” Castille, who also participated in Thursday’s “United for Marijuana Decriminalization” event, said.
“Our work (and the president’s promise to decriminalize) won’t be over until nobody in this country is serving time for possessing or distributing a plant that is objectively safer than several unscheduled substances like alcohol or tobacco,” he said.
The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) is also calling on Biden to continue the work of changing federal marijuana laws, noting that thousands of people remain incarcerated in federal prison over cannabis. To mark the pardon anniversary, the advocacy group released a report on Thursday that outlined the deficiencies in state-level reforms on issues such as resentencing and record-sealing.
“As we mark the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s cannabis proclamation, Last Prisoner Project reaffirms its dedication to the pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion,” it said in a press release. “We remain committed to dismantling the harmful legacy of the War on Drugs and ensuring that those affected by cannabis prohibition are not forgotten.”
To mark the 1-year anniversary of @potus' cannabis proclamation, we are urging further action with the release of our landmark State of Cannabis Justice Report. 🧵https://t.co/zTiBOMR0DZ pic.twitter.com/pUWrFKw6Su
— Last Prisoner Project (@lastprisonerprj) October 5, 2023
While the Senate Banking Committee approved a bill last month to safeguard financial institutions that work with the marijuana industry—and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has pledged to add legislation on cannabis expungements and gun rights for marijuana consumers—its enactment is not a given, and so advocates are putting the onus on Biden to ensure that action is not limited to the limited pardons and scheduling review.
A Democratic-led measure to comprehensively legalize cannabis was also refiled in the House last month, but given GOP control over the chamber—and the present leadership debacle following the ousting of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as speaker—it’s not expected to advance this session, despite passing in the chamber twice in recent years under Democratic majorities.
“Taking further action to deescalate the prohibition of marijuana is one of the best ways still at the Biden administration’s disposal to draw a contrast with the dysfunction of the Congress and justify to voters that he can accomplish things that a supermajority of Americans want done,” Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment.
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)