President Biden’s Cannabis Pardons

Similarly to many career politicians who now support criminal justice reform after decades of supporting the most unjust policing and sentencing laws, President Joe Biden has been notably lacking in keeping the pro-cannabis and criminal justice reform promises he ran on in the contentious and chaotic election that was 2020. Along with still referencing the widely disproven “gateway drug” theories, even on the campaign trail, Biden promised that federal cannabis reform would become a reality under his presidency.

Certain notable legislators from both sides of the aisle of Congress and the Senate such as Ohio Rep. David Joyce and Oregon Rep. Jeff Merkley continue to file and sponsor cannabis reform legislation on the federal level, yet all attempts never approach anything that resembles fruition. Cannabis reform polls extremely well, yet Congress and the Senate remain tribally divided on most issues, unfortunately including cannabis. And despite any action to implement cannabis reforms on the federal level, Biden seems to be attempting to judicially atone for the millions of wrongs and injustices committed by the 1994 Crime Bill.

Biden’s first round of pardons: October of 2022

In October of 2022, Biden announced his presidential pardon of thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” under federal law and in the District of Columbia. With this pardon, these thousands of Americans were finally free from the many socioeconomic disadvantages that come with a criminal conviction, especially one on the federal level.

“There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result, my action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”

While this mass pardon is undoubtedly beneficial, it does depressingly little for the thousands of inmates who are serving several-decade sentences or life imprisonment due to victimless cannabis charges on the state level. For many of the unjustly incarcerated individuals that organizations such as The Buried Alive Project and Last Prisoner Project advocate for the release of, the October 2022 announcement didn’t provide much alleviation. Because unless a cannabis conviction of any kind is on the federal level, the President of the United States can’t provide much of a pardon beyond a vocal recommendation.

Biden’s second round of pardons: December of 2023

In December, the 46th President announced another expansive wave of cannabis pardons that build upon the initial October 2022 pardons. In a detailed announcement by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the Department of Justice discussed exactly how these pardons are an extension of the previous pardons from 18 months ago.

“On December 22, 2023, President Biden issued another proclamation that expanded the relief provided by the original proclamation.” the bulletin read. “The December 2023 proclamation adds to the list of pardoned offenses the following: offenses under federal law for attempted possession of marijuana; additional offenses under the D.C. Code for simple marijuana possession; and violations of certain sections of the Code of Federal Regulations involving simple marijuana possession and use.”

Once again, this bill does virtually nothing beneficial for anyone convicted and/or incarcerated for similar offenses on any state level. However in the official White House statement released on the same day, Biden directly addressed those thousands of individuals serving unnecessary years in prison for victimless drug charges and spoke to the governors of those states.

“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana,” Biden explained, “no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either. That’s why I continue to urge Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.”

Still though, this new update to the previous mass pardon once again only applies to simple possession or use cases. If an offender is still incarcerated or lives with a conviction for any type of cannabis distribution-related charges, which are commonly added to many possession cases, then they’d still be ineligible for any type of pardon.

There were also 11 people that received clemency from Biden for non-violent drug-related offenses who received steep and unfair sentences due to either Reagan-era or 1994 Crime Bill-related sentencing guidelines. Some of these convictions were related to crack cocaine possession, a substance that received significantly longer sentences for the possession and distribution of when compared to sentencing for powder cocaine possession.

“These individuals, like so many others, were convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to decades in prison, including in some cases mandatory life sentences,” a White House official said. “Some individuals received sentences that are twice as long as they likely would have been today and could not benefit from subsequent changes in the law.”

Long road ahead

Reformative changes, especially those related to drug sentencing and the millions of lives affected by those policies, come in waves and won’t rapidly be enacted overnight. For an unjust decades-long and trillion-dollar failure that the War on Drugs truly is, it’ll take the work of several different Presidents and Congressional sessions to attempt to undo all the colossal wrongs. However, this recent December policy is a further step in the right direction for a President who ran so heavily on criminal justice reform and who’s facing reelection in November.

For more on President Biden and cannabis, check out the following posts: