President Joe Biden still believes people shouldn’t be incarcerated over marijuana—but there’s still no “update” on any progress to fulfill his decriminalization promise from the campaign trail, the White House said on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20 on Wednesday.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki was again asked about the president’s pledge to stop criminalizing people over marijuana at a briefing with reporters. While there’s no news from the administration on that proposal, the official instead touted moves by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to expand the number of authorized manufacturers to grow cannabis for research purposes.
That didn’t quite address the decriminalization question.
“The president continues to believe that no one should be in jail because of drug use,” Psaki said. “I don’t have an update here. We are continuing to work with Congress, but what I can say on marijuana is we’ve made some progress on our promises.”
DEA approving additional cannabis manufacturers for scientists is “a key step in promoting research because it broadens the amount and quality of cannabis available for research purposes,” the press secretary said.
She added that Biden is “continuing to review his clemency powers, which is something he also talked about on the campaign and certainly remains committed to taking action on.” Psaki made similar remarks on the clemency topic at a briefing in December.
Biden has received about a dozen letters from lawmakers, advocates, celebrities and people impacted by criminalization to do something about the people who remain behind federal bars over cannabis. After months of inaction, some members of Congress like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have even sent follow-up letters demanding a response.
As Biden continues to “review” his clemency powers, he could theoretically turn to a report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) last year, affirming that the president has it within his power to grant mass pardons for cannabis offenses.
The report also said that the administration can move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.
But the prospects of unilateral action from the administration to comprehensively end prohibition remain in doubt. About a year ago, Psaki reiterated that the president’s opposition to broad reform “has not changed.”
When asked about a bill to federally legalize marijuana that passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, the official said the president agrees that “our current marijuana laws are not working,” but she declined to directly address whether the president supports the specific legislation.
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Biden campaigned on several cannabis reform promises—from rescheduling to expungements to legalization for medical use—but he’s yet to act on most of them after more than a year in office. That’s in spite of intense pressure from lawmakers and advocates throughout his tenures.
Biden himself hasn’t made a substantive public comment about cannabis policy since entering the Oval Office, beside making a quick, dismissive comment to a reporter who asked about clemency for current federal marijuana prisoners.
Vice President Kamala Harris, for her part, suggested last year that the Biden administration isn’t focused on following through on its marijuana reform pledges because it’s too overwhelmed with other issues.
Advocates are losing patience. It’s one thing that the administration hasn’t taken concrete steps on its own to change federal marijuana policy, but it’s also taken actions that subvert reform efforts.
For example, in Biden’s latest budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2023, he again proposed the continuation of a rider blocking Washington, D.C. from legalizing cannabis sales. To the relief of advocates, however, he again kept a separate rider intact to protect legal medical cannabis programs from federal intervention.
The lack of clemency action from Biden is especially disappointing to advocates who have been lobbying the White House to do something on this issue.
Early in 2021, the Biden administration came under fire after it was reported that it had terminated or otherwise punished dozens of staffers who admitted to prior marijuana use as part of their background check process.
Psaki previously attempted to minimize the fallout, without much success, and her office also stressed that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.” However, she’s consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on the federal background check form.
For what it’s worth, a poll released in January found that more than half of Americans feel that Biden has made little to no progress on his campaign pledge to decriminalize marijuana during his first year in office—and most people also aren’t betting on him doing more to advance the reform in 2022.
Beside the House passed legalization bill, Senate leadership is also working to finalize its own legislation to end prohibition and promote social equity. However, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently pushed back the timeline for that bill’s introduction after saying it would likely be filed this month.
Several Republican members of Congress introduced a bill last November to federally legalize and tax marijuana as an alternative to far-reaching Democratic-led reform proposals and scaled-down GOP cannabis descheduling legislation. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), said she expects a committee hearing on her proposal.
Last week, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers filed a bill that would simply direct the attorney general to create a commission charged with making recommendations on a regulatory system for marijuana that models what’s currently in place for alcohol.
Meanwhile, DEA said in a new report that as more marijuana is being produced domestically in the U.S., it’s undermining illicit cannabis trafficking from Mexico.
Separately, Florida’s agriculture commissioner on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, arguing that the federal government is unconstitutionally depriving medical cannabis patients of their Second Amendment right to purchase and possess firearms.