Biden’s Action on Weed Convictions Is a First Step — Let’s Push for Much More

President Biden’s announcement yesterday on marijuana was exactly the bold leadership we needed from this administration — ahead of the critical midterm elections in one month — and a step in the right direction for what must come next if he is to attempt to right the many wrongs of the 1994 crime bill, which he had championed as a senator, and which imposed automatic life sentences for people upon their third offense if they already had two prior felony convictions on their records.

Biden’s executive order on marijuana did three key things: 1) Unconditionally pardoned people with federal convictions for simple marijuana possession; 2) called on governors to follow suit by issuing pardons for state-level marijuana possession offenses; and 3) directed the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to “initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

These orders taken together are beyond a “game changer.” They are life-changing for thousands of Americans living with federal marijuana convictions — primarily those who have already served their sentences but have continued to carry the stigma and experience the collateral consequences of those convictions.

Despite some skepticism about the decision to pardon only 6,500 people, it is still the largest number of pardons granted by any U.S. president. It will absolutely change the lives of these 6,500 Americans. Biden is clearing the records and allowing people to have access to housing and work opportunities. the new “green” economy of legal marijuanaIn all 50 states.

Black and Brown folks have disproportionately been impacted by the so-called “war on drugs” and the era of mass incarceration that followed. It’s past time to not only reverse the damages it has caused but to open the doors of opportunity, so that it’s no longer primarily white men getting rich off of selling marijuana, something primarily Black men went to prison over for so many years.

Biden has also called on state governors across the country to follow his example. Now, no elected governor or candidate running for higher office in this upcoming midterm election can say, “Sorry, we can’t do it.” Yes, you can! All of your excuses have been taken off the table by the president. You move! Your move!

Already, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf — a Democrat who is running for reelection — announced, “I just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for people with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions. Under Pennsylvania law, I don’t have unilateral pardon authority — but I’m doing everything I can …”

Similarly, Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted, “When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession.” Other Democrats running for state offices issued similar promises, as well, while Republicans so far have remained mostly silent.

This could be the final straw for the public support that favors federal legalization and decriminalization, something that many of us have fought for for so many years. Biden’s decision this week did not happen in a vacuum, and it did not happen overnight. This is only the first step in a bold direction after many have fought for it for years.

As a formerly incarcerated person myself — from a community where drugs was the preferred economy, because people live in a constant survival mode — to now have those records wiped clean and so many barriers removed has me excited to see the next bold steps the president is willing to take.

Yes, this is what many who voted for then-candidate Biden were hoping for, and he has now delivered on an important part of that promise — one month before the crucial midterm elections. Now we need the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to deschedule marijuana completely, in order to fully remove criminal penalties, and we need to call on the Biden administration for broader clemency for people who’ve been incarcerated on other marijuana charges, as well.

My organization, JustLeadershipUSA and other members from the Marijuana Justice Coalition, part of the Drug Policy Alliance, have published our support for the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity ActWe believe that this is the next bold step Congress, president must take. This legislation would remove marijuana completely from the Controlled Substances Act.

In the end, there is only one logical policy direction that the federal government can follow: decriminalization of clemency. Our government should pursue these two objectives as boldly as it once pursued the “war on drugs,” which caused so much of our oppression.