Promises half delivered

Joe Biden hasn’t followed through on his promise to decriminalize cannabis — but he has opened the door for mass pardons across the country

Court gavel in front of national flag of the USA having shadows of cannabis on wooden table. 3D illustration of the concept of the pardons of federal conviction for marijuana possession

Speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by the National Action Network, President Joe Biden once again broached the subject of mass pardoning cannabis criminal offenders. 

“No one — I’ll say it again — no one should be in federal prison for the mere possession of marijuana. No one,” the president said. “In addition to that, they should be released from prison and completely pardoned and their entire record expunged so that if they have to ask, ‘Have you ever been [convicted]?’ you can honestly say, ‘No.’”

That statement follows the mass pardon Biden issued in October for all Americans federally charged with cannabis possession offenses (Weed Between the Lines, “Tastes like crow,” Oct. 13, 2022). It’s an action he’s since touted as a fulfilled campaign promise. 

In truth, however, the campaign promise Biden made was to “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.” It was part of his “Plan for Black America,” which is likely why he brought it up again speaking about social justice on MLK Day. Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In some places, like Iowa and D.C., it’s more than double that rate. 

That makes any promise to mass pardon and expunge cannabis possession charges a promise directly to Black America. It would affect hundreds of thousands of people at the state level. Of the more than 8 million total cannabis arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simple possession. 

According to Reuters, the pardons Biden issued in October affected just 6,500 Americans. Because he only pardoned individuals convicted of simple possession at the federal level, the act of clemency left out nearly 3,000 Americans currently serving time in federal prisons for higher level cannabis crimes. What’s more, while none of the 6,500 individuals Biden pardoned remain in prison, his pardons don’t expunge their records, as that power falls outside of his authority. 

It was also beyond his authority to issue pardons for the 30,000 prisoners currently incarcerated in state prisons for cannabis crimes. However, Biden encouraged state governors to follow his lead and issue pardons at the state level as well. 

Weeks later, Oregon Governor Kate Brown did. 

“No one deserves to be saddled with the impacts of a simple possession of marijuana conviction — a crime that is no longer on the books in Oregon,” Brown tweeted on Nov. 21, 2022. “I am pardoning these prior Oregon offenses, an act that will impact an estimated 45,000 individuals.”

Other governors were, predictably, less cooperative with the request from POTUS. In a statement from his press secretary, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from [the] leader of the defund-the-police party, and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck [sic] with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals.”

There were other governors who landed somewhere in between. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed an executive order in November providing a “full, complete, and conditional pardon” for any Kentuckian with a possession charge on their record — if they have an out-of-state medical cannabis license. 

It isn’t the outright decriminalization and mass expungement that Biden’s Plan for Black America promised. Nevertheless, the president’s actions have had an impact. His act of federal clemency opened the floodgates for cannabis possession pardons across the country. 

And, more than that, it’s legitimately historic for a president to not only be talking about pardoning cannabis crimes, but actually taking steps to do so — even if they’re small. The effect that has on the national perspective on cannabis is profound. 

Still, it would be disingenuous to let our commander in chief off the hook so easily. After all, we were promised decriminalization. In December, a bipartisan group of 29 members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden asking that he formally back full cannabis legalization. 

“While we do not always agree on specific measures, we recognize across the aisle that continued federal prohibition and criminalization of marijuana does not reflect the will of the broader American electorate,” the letter read. “It is time that your administration’s agenda fully reflects this reality as well.”