By Laurel Spear
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA – In a video statement released on Twitter on Oct. 6, 2022, President Joe Biden announced he was pardoning all Americans convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law and in the District of Columbia. White House Officials explained that between 1992-2021, 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession under federal law and thousands more were convicted under District of Columbia drug laws. This mass pardoning will require the Department of Justice to establish a process to pardon and clear records of people convicted of simple possession since the 1970s.
According to Erik Altieri of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), since 1965, law enforcement officials have arrested nearly 29 million Americans on cannabis-related offenses. The American Civil Liberties Union conducted research from 2010-2018 that found there have been over 6 million arrests in that time for marijuana possession with over 600,000 arrests in 2018 alone. In 2018, more arrests were made for cannabis “than for all violent crimes combined.” Data from the ACLU also shows that marijuana possession accounts for 40-50% of all drug arrests.
Although Biden’s pardons may seem like a monumental step, these pardons will not apply to anyone convicted at the state level or those convicted of selling or distributing cannabis. “It’s a great first step, but that’s all it is,” a Berkeley-based marijuana dealer speaking under the condition of anonymity explained. “This is a valuable political statement, and it reflects the change in public opinion towards weed, but it’s only going to affect a very small portion of people stuck in prison for marijuana-related crimes.”
In Biden’s video, he urges state governors to follow his lead in pardoning state-level drug convictions. Almost all drug possession charges are at the state level, meaning that these people will not be affected by Biden’s pardons and would need to be pardoned by their state governor. The US Sentencing Commission found that out of almost 20,000 drug convictions in 2017, only 92 were sentenced on federal marijuana possession charges.
According to the Last Prisoner Project, currently there are some 3,000 people in federal prison convicted of higher-level cannabis crimes and 30,000 with state-level convictions who will not be affected by Biden’s mass pardoning. The pardons Biden introduced will not extend to people convicted of marijuana possession who are not legal US citizens or residents or those illegally in the country when arrested.
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021 showed that 67% of Americans favored releasing people being held for marijuana-related offenses from prison. This signals a drastic shift in public opinion related to cannabis use in recent decades. According to a Gallup poll, in 2020, 68% of Americans supported the move to legalize marijuana, which is up from 12% in 1969, when Gallup first conducted the poll.
The rapid proliferation of states enacting pro-marijuana legislation reflects the national change in attitude related to cannabis use. In California and 18 other states, marijuana is already legal for recreational use, and in 37 states and D.C. it is legal for medical use. In five states—Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota—people will vote on marijuana legalization in the election this November.
On Sept. 18 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed 10 marijuana-related bills. One of the most historic changes is the permission of interstate cannabis commerce to and from California and other legal states. Newsom also signed a bill blocking the discrimination of hiring, terminating, or any other condition of employment based on off-duty cannabis use. Another of the bills signed in September will mandate courts to seal records for eligible people convicted of marijuana-related offenses. “Sealing records is huge and will help so many people convicted of marijuana offenses in starting a new life and having a fresh start” the Berkeley dealer explained.
Biden explained in his video statement that “There are thousands of people who were convicted for marijuana possession who may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result,” of their arrest records.. Ex-convicts’ records frequently affect their lives after being released, because they have to disclose their records on job applications and may be denied employment based on their past convictions. People may also face obstacles applying to college, getting student loans, finding housing, or getting federal benefits based on their convictions, and if convicted again there is potential for harsher sentencing.
The aforementioned ACLU studies found that a Black person is over three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession as a White person. “While White and Black and Brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates” Biden reported in his statement. The anonymous Berkeley dealer explained that “it’s absolutely ludicrous that I’m more likely to be arrested and get a harsher punishment based solely on institutional racism and stereotypes of Black and Brown people as pot-smoking criminals.”
Biden said Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra will also begin a review of marijuana’s federal classification. Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance along with other drugs like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. This category is defined as drugs with no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse. In his video statement, Biden went on to say “it made no sense” that marijuana is in the same classification as heroin. Biden also noted that marijuana currently has a higher classification than fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“Schedule I drugs don’t have any medical use, but more and more recent studies have shown the potential for weed to drastically improve the lives of people struggling with many different illnesses” the Berkeley-based dealer explained. Although the FDA has not currently approved marijuana for medicinal use, they did approve a CBD-based medication called Epidiolex for treating childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome, and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Recent animal studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found cannabis extracts may help kill or reduce cancer cells. Research by Frontiers in Pharmacology has also found cannabis can help aid in spasticity from multiple sclerosis (MS) or epilepsy, chronic pain, appetite loss from AIDS, and nausea and pain from chemotherapy.
Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.