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Will Governors Issue Marijuana Pardons Following Biden’s Call To Action? Dozens Are Already Weighing In

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Dozens of governors and gubernatorial candidates across the U.S. are already reacting to President Joe Biden’s call for state-level action to provide relief for people with low-level marijuana convictions in conjunction with his move for mass federal cannabis pardons on Thursday.

The reactions run the gamut, with some top officials saying they are taking formal steps to review the president’s request, others touting cannabis actions they’ve already made and some signaling they will not be following suit.

Biden’s announcement on Thursday—when he also ordered an administrative review of federal cannabis scheduling—elicited a massive response from lawmakers, state officials and advocates.

And while the president’s mass federal pardon will provide relief to an estimated 6,500 people who have committed federal cannabis possession offenses, as well as thousands drug war victims in Washington, D.C., the state-level call to action stands to have far greater impact if governors go along with it, as the vast majority of marijuana convictions have taken place in state courts.

Here’s how governors and candidates are reacting to Biden’s pardon message: 

Alabama

A spokesperson for Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said the governor doesn’t have power to unilaterally grant sweeping pardons, which are issued on a case-by-case basis by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“Even if the board could grant an across-the-board pardon, it would only impact a very small fraction, less than one percent of those currently serving sentences in our state,” she said.

Arkansas

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), a former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said that he’s against the idea of a federal mass pardon and feels relief should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“The President, in his announced policy on marijuana, has waived the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse and has adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers,” he said in a statement. “As Governor I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.”

He also expressed concerns about the president’s scheduling review order, saying that while it “sounds good,” it’s represents “a step that has not been taken” under the previous two administrations and arguing that Biden “is simply playing election-year politics and sacrificing our national interest to win votes.“

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones, for his part, said that he would expunge records of people arrested for low-level marijuana offenses but argued that “governors should not be made to do this wholesale, yet they also should not delay in addressing this very real issue of justice and fairness.”

“If voters legalize adult-use marijuana in November, which the majority of Arkansas voters are said to support, then we must immediately reunite families that were broken up by a conviction for an activity that would now be considered legal,” he said. “If I serve as governor under current law, my preference is for a case-by-case review for possible pardons, a position I share with Gov. Hutchinson.”

Colorado

The governor of Colorado said that he’s “thrilled” with the president’s cannabis announcement and that he’s already moved “to clean up past inequities by pardoning convictions for Coloradans who possessed a small amount of cannabis” starting two years ago.

“Today’s federal action will change people’s lives and not block their success,” Gov. Jared Polis (D) said.

Connecticut

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) applauded the administration’s decision “recognizing this injustice and taking action today on a federal level to right some of the wrongs that have occurred in the United States for too long.”

He added that a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state that he signed last year contains “a provision that automatically erases certain cannabis-related convictions under state law, which will make a difference in the lives of impacted people.”

Florida

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who came up short in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this year, called on Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to “follow [Biden’s] lead by supporting the pardoning, restoration of rights, and clearing of records of any Floridian convicted of simple marijuana possession.”

It doesn’t appear that the governor has commented on the president’s call to action for state-level relief.

Georgia

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams said that if elected she would push to decriminalize cannabis possession and support expunging prior records.

She praised the president’s pardon action and said her state “must follow suit to help Georgians who are denied a chance at redemption because of their convictions for simple possession.”

Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) doesn’t appear to have weighed in on Biden’s move.

Hawaii

A spokesperson for Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) said that the official “supports measures that align state and federal laws on this issue and is reviewing the president’s request to determine whether it is consistent with state law and in the best interests of the people of Hawaii.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green (D), the Democratic gubernatorial nominee seeking to replace Ige, said that he agrees with Biden that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” and he pledged to review misdemeanor marijuana possession cases if elected.

Duke Aiona, the GOP nominee running for governor, responded by saying that the pardon announcement “fulfills a political promise he made to those who voted for him in 2020.”

“As a former deputy prosecutor and state judge, I am committed to the rule of law. I am also aware of the Governor’s authority to pardon criminal offenses,” he said. “It is my position that as Governor, any application by a person seeking a pardon of a criminal conviction will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and not via a ‘blanket’ decision based on a particular offense. Pardons of criminal offenses cannot be based on a political promise.”

Idaho

Gov. Brad Little (R) issued a statement bashing Biden’s cannabis announcement and pointing out that under Idaho law, only the Commission of Pardons and Parole can issue pardons.

Biden “wants to let people out of jail for drug offenses while he keeps the border open, allowing drug traffickers to pour into our country unchecked,” the governor said.

“It is clear President Biden issued this blanket pardon for show, setting a bad precedent when cases should be reviewed on their individual merits,” Little added. “But what’s not clear is whether Biden really understands that individuals incarcerated for possession of small amounts of marijuana almost always have accompanying offenses, making his blanket pardon basically pointless. Here in Idaho, we will continue to fight for a secure border and make our correctional system fair, with a focus on keeping dangerous people off the street.”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stephen Heidt, pledged to support pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession.

“Cannabis reform has been one of my issues from the beginning,” he said. “Idaho citizens should not be in prison for just using or possessing cannabis, and medical use should be legalized.”

Illinois

“We know too many black and brown people were disproportionately impacted by disparities in prosecution and conviction,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said. “I’m proud to have taken action and I hope to see other states follow our lead.”

In 2020, the governor announced that his office had processed more than 500,000 expungements and pardons for people with low-level cannabis convictions on their records.

A state-funded initiative was also recently established to help residents with marijuana convictions get legal aid and other services to have their records expunged.

Prizker also signed a bill in May that would make it so courts cannot deny petitions to expunge or seal records based on a positive drug test for marijuana.

Indiana

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has pardon authority, but a spokesperson for his office said that he’s not currently available to comment on any plans to follow through on Biden’s request, as he’s currently in Switzerland for an “economic development trip.”

Kansas

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) office said that the governor is “focused on legalizing medical marijuana so that Kansans with severe illnesses no longer have to suffer,” and she will “continue to consider all clemency and pardon requests based on a complete and thorough review of the individual cases.”

The governor championed a medical cannabis legalization bill in 2020, and she’s said that she’d sign adult-use legalization into law if the legislature delivered a proposal to her desk.

Kentucky

In Kentucky, a spokesperson for Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said the official “agrees that no one should be in jail simply because of possession of marijuana,” but the office did not have any immediate plans to grant state-level relief, as they were “not alerted” about the specifics of the request prior to the announcement.

“The Governor looks forward to reviewing those details when available in his larger analysis on medical cannabis and how to move forward when the vast majority of Kentuckians demand it,” they said.

Beshear, who is pushing for medical cannabis legalization in the state and is separately considering executive reform actions, has previously applauded examples of prosecutorial discretion in marijuana cases and commuted non-violent offenses including those related to cannabis.

Louisiana

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Biden’s federal marijuana move was “right” but that he doesn’t have the authority to take a similar step at the state level, pointing to a state board that processes and recommends pardon action.

“Someone who has been convicted of a simple possession of marijuana that would now be legal in many states, decriminalized in others, that conviction should not prevent you from having access to employment, to housing, to education and so forth,” the governor said, adding that he would work with state lawmakers to further reduce cannabis penalties.

“We’ve looked back at our constitution and laws in Louisiana and unlike many states, I do not have plenary authority to grant a pardon. So if someone wants a pardon in Louisiana, and this was a matter of the constitution, they have to apply to the pardon board for the clemency, they have to be granted a hearing, they have to have the hearing, after an opportunity for public notice and input and so forth. Then they have to be recommended, and that’s the only time it comes to me. So what we have to do is look forward and see whether a change in legislation may be able to help, whether it’s going to require some thing to the constitution. But it’s not something I have the authority to do in Louisiana at present and so we’re going to be looking at it going forward. And working obviously with members of the legislature to take their temperature and see if there’s an appetite for moving in this direction.”

Maryland

Wes Moore, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Maryland, happened to be touring a state-legal cannabis dispensary to discuss racial equity in the industry when Biden made the announcement.

“I applaud the president’s decision. I think it is something that’s been overdue on the federal side,” Moore said outside the shop.

“I also applaud the president for asking governors to follow his lead. I know that if I have the opportunity to be the next governor of Maryland, we are going to follow that lead,” he said. “It’s time that our states do right and I’m thankful for the leadership that the president showed us.”

It doesn’t appear that current Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has weighed in on Biden’s marijuana action.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said that the state has already moved to provide relief to people with cannabis convictions, consistent with the president’s directive.

That included by supporting legislation enacted in 2018 that allows “for the expungement of marijuana-related offenses that are now decriminalized in Massachusetts,” a spokesperson told The Boston Herald. Another bill he signed this year “broadened eligibility for expungement” and “streamlined expungement process,” they added.

Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said that she would “move to pardon state convictions for simple marijuana possession, modeled after the steps taken today by President Biden,” if elected.

In contrast, the Republican nominee Geoff Diehl said Biden’s proclamation is “the latest in a series of outrageous moves by President Biden to eliminate consequences for wrongful actions as he panders for votes for his party in the midterm election.”

“As drugs are flowing freely into our country through open borders, the Biden Administration should not be pardoning those who break federal drug laws,” he said. “I oppose President Biden’s policy on a national basis and I call on my opponents to do the same. Here in Massachusetts, the voters have spoken on this issue and, as Governor, I would act consistently with the law and the will of the voters.”

Michigan

In a statement, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) office said that the governor “has been working to deliver the resources that law enforcement needs to stay focused on fighting gun crime and going after violent criminals.”

“That needs to be our top priority. When it comes to marijuana, the people of Michigan have already taken action on this issue at the ballot box in 2008 and again in 2018,” the office said, adding that she’s signed legislation to streamline expungements that covers certain cannabis offenses.

“We will continue to work with anyone who’s serious about solving problems and keeping our communities safe,” the office said.

In 2020, the governor signed a bill allowing people with low-level marijuana convictions to have their records expunged. Later that year, she also granted clemency to four currently incarcerated people who were serving time for non-violent drug offenses.

Minnesota

“The Governor supports the President’s decision and has advanced marijuana legalization in Minnesota,” Gov. Tim Walz’s (D) office said in a statement. “Because pardons in Minnesota require a unanimous vote by the Board of Pardons, the Governor does not have the ability to take unilateral action.”

“The Minnesota Board of Pardons is made up of the Governor, Attorney General, and Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court,” they explained.

Walz, who backs adult-use legalization and has pushed the legislature to enact the reform, separately cheered the president’s action, describing it as a “critical step forward.” Minnesota’s House passed a legalization bill last year, but it stalled out in the Senate.

Missouri

A spokesperson for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) said that Biden’s proclamation “is limited to individuals who violated federal law and does not implicate state law in any way.”

“In Missouri, those with criminal records can apply for expungement under state law,” they said. “Governor Parson has used his state constitutional authority to grant pardons to individuals who demonstrate a changed life-style, commitment to rehabilitation, contrition, and contribution to their communities—rather than as a blanket approach to undermine existing law.”

Expungements would be facilitated in Missouri under a cannabis legalization initiative that will go before voters next month. The governor is opposed to the proposal.

Montana

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signaled in a statement that the governor is not planning any mass cannabis clemency.

“The governor will continue to evaluate clemencies submitted through the Board of Pardons and Parole on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with statute,” she said. “Governor Gianforte has long supported treatment in lieu of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, making a historic investment in treatment and prevention programs for communities in his first year in office.”

Nebraska

“The President’s announcement today on marijuana reveals once again that he is both misinformed and ill-advised regarding the issues surrounding marijuana,” Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) said. “There is no one in our state correctional system who has been incarcerated simply because they possessed marijuana.”

About 1,773 people were arrested for cannabis possession in Nebraska in 2020, according to NORML.

“Furthermore, the legalization of marijuana in other states has demonstrated an increase in drug cartel activity, increased driver impairment, and with far higher THC levels, greater risk for permanent mental health impairment, especially for adolescents,” the governor said. “This is exactly the wrong direction for our country.”

Nevada

In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) touted the state’s ongoing efforts to provide relief to people with cannabis convictions on their records, pointing out that the state Board of Pardons Commissioners adopted a 2020 resolution he introduced to streamline pardons for thousands of Nevadans.

“Earnest steps forward on drug policy today will only expand on our accomplishments here!” he said. Especially for users of medicinal cannabis, today’s actions will offer real change. Don’t stop following Nevada’s lead!”

Last year, the governor pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession.

New Hampshire

A spokesperson for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said that the official “has done more on the issues surrounding marijuana reform than any other Governor in New Hampshire history.”

“After years of inaction by Democrat governors, Chris Sununu signed commonsense decriminalization so no one would be jailed for simple possession of minor amounts of marijuana, expanded access to medical marijuana, and provided a pathway to annul old convictions for marijuana possession,” they said.

Sununu and the state Department of Justice are “reviewing the President’s actions,” the office said, adding that New Hampshire statute does not allow the governor to unilaterally issue pardons and requires additional legislative oversight.

New Mexico

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) touted expungements provisions included in legislation she signed along with a marijuana legalization bill.

“No New Mexican should suffer the consequences of outdated, out-of-touch, cannabis-related crimes,” she said on Twitter. “This year, New Mexico identified over 155,000 outdated cannabis charges that qualify to be expunged—helping people and families across the state. This is just one way New Mexico’s cannabis rollout was one of the best, and most just, in the country.”

“Thousands of Americans have been overly penalized for the simple use or possession of cannabis, including through jail time and limitations on opportunities in housing, employment and education,” the governor added in a statement. “New Mexico has already taken action to stop these antiquated policies from harming anyone else, and I was proud to have made the expungement of simple cannabis possession convictions from criminal records a cornerstone of New Mexico’s legalization process.”

North Carolina

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said that he’s directed state attorneys to review pardon authority for marijuana offenses.

He spoke about cannabis reform at a meeting of the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that he convened in 2020, saying law enforcement “should be focused on stopping violent crime and drug trafficking and other threats to safe communities.”

The task force has previously recommended decriminalizing marijuana.

“We also know a conviction of simple possession can mar people’s records for life and prevent them from getting a job,” he said. “North Carolina should take steps to end this stigma.”

Attorney General Josh Stein (D) separately said that “people should not have a federal criminal record for something that is legal in an increasing number of states,” and he looks forward to “working with the legislature in the coming months to help move NC forward as well.”

“Let’s act—and let’s get it right,” he said. “That means decriminalizing adult use, expunging past convictions for simple possession, and including strong protections for kids, no advertising, state controlled sales, and putting NC farmers first.”

Ohio

A spokesperson for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said that the official does not intend to abide by the president’s request for state action, saying Ohio law doesn’t allow the governor to issue blanket pardons and that a person would need to be found in possession of large quantities of marijuana in order to face incarceration in the state.

“The president’s opinion is what it is—but, reviewing his press release, [for] the types of situations he’s talking about, Ohio law does not permit people to be sentenced for those situations,” they said.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley said that she worked to decriminalize marijuana as mayor of Dayton and would “continue that work” if elected.

“Additionally, I’ll take steps to responsibly expunge the records of individuals previously convicted of minor marijuana possession charges,” she said. “I am encouraged to hear the Administration is following through on its commitment to address criminal justice reform.”

Pennsylvania

Biden’s announcement came about a week after a deadline closed for a one-month expedited marijuana pardon program that was launched by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D).

Wolf said that he doesn’t have “unilateral pardon authority—but I’m doing everything I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”

More than 3,500 people submitted applications for the cannabis relief program, which is being facilitated by the state Board of Pardons that Fetterman chairs.

Both the governor and lieutenant governor have advocated for marijuana legalization in the state, but reform has yet to be enacted in the conservative legislature.

In the meantime, Fetterman, a U.S. Senate candidate, has said that he wants to process cannabis clemency for as many people as possible before leaving office.

Rhode Island

“The President’s announcement is a crucial step forward for fairness and justice in our nation and [Gov. Dan McKee (D)] applauds this action,” a spokesperson said. “As this news was just announced, the Governor and his team are currently reviewing how to most efficiently and effectively address this request here in Rhode Island.”

McKee signed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in May. The legislation calls for the state to automatically expunge prior marijuana possession convictions for amounts now made legal by July 1, 2024, but those who petition the court for relief will have their cases expedited.

Tennessee

A spokesperson for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said flatly that the official is “not considering” granting pardons for people with marijuana possession convictions regardless of the president’s actions.

Texas

Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) previously voicing support for marijuana decriminalization and saying he doesn’t think people should be in jail over cannabis possession, a spokesperson for his office dismissed Biden’s request for state action.

“Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals,” they said.

“The Governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon,” they added.

A spokesperson for Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman who is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said that “Beto will champion legislation that legalizes marijuana and expunges the records of those arrested for marijuana possession” if he’s elected.

“We will legalize marijuana in Texas,” O’Rourke said on Twitter.

U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)

A spokesperson for USVI Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) touted the official’s legislation to legalize marijuana in the territory that he plans to send to the legislature, saying that reparative justice for people with non-violent cannabis convictions is a “fundamental tenet” of the proposal.

Utah

In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox (R) said that he doesn’t “have the authority to pardon anyone, but I disagree with the president’s entire approach.”

“Whether it’s transferring student loan debts to millions of other taxpayers or ignoring federal law enforcement laws, the president continues to disregard the checks and balances in our system,” he said. “If you want to see a change in our laws, do the hard work that it takes to enact that change with Congress. But taking an executive action like this only weeks before an election is nothing more than a desperate attempt to win votes.”

Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) hasn’t directly commented on the president’s announcement yet, but a spokesperson for his office said that the administration “is reviewing President Biden’s executive action.”

Former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a bill to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation into law last year, and Youngkin pledged not to overturn the reform.

Washington State

“The president’s efforts are very much aligned with ours to correct some of our nation’s longstanding disparities in the justice system,” Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said.

A spokesperson said that while the governor has clemency authority, which he’s exercised in the past, it’s not clear whether he’s able to grant blanket pardons.

“Beyond what we’re already doing, I’m not sure what else is left to do with the Gov’s clemency authority,” they said.

Last year, Inslee unveiled an enhanced process through which hundreds of people with low-level drug convictions can apply for a commutation of their sentence.

In 2019, Inslee launched a separate program that made it so people with a misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions on their record were eligible to receive an expedited pardon.

Wisconsin

Gov. Tony Evers (D) supports marijuana legalization and has already granted clemency to a number of individuals for cannabis and other drug convictions.

A spokesperson for the governor, asked by local media about whether he would join Biden in granting mass pardons, simply pointed to his “existing pardon eligibility criteria” and did not reply to a follow-up question about the possibility of blanket clemency for people with cannabis convictions.

DOJ To ‘Expeditiously’ Act On Biden’s Marijuana Pardon Directive, While HHS ‘Looking Forward’ To Scheduling Review

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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