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Biden’s marijuana pardons limited, but spark legalization talk on Hill

The number of people released from prison will be small, one expert said

President Joe Biden steps off Marine One upon arrival Thursday in Wall Township, N.J.
President Joe Biden steps off Marine One upon arrival Thursday in Wall Township, N.J. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s intent to pardon thousands of people convicted of possessing marijuana may have a limited impact on its own, even as it stirred debate about federal legalization.

As part of a broader announcement on marijuana policy, Biden said Thursday he would pardon the thousands of people with federal misdemeanor convictions for simple possession of marijuana. White House officials said that more than 6,500 people were convicted of possession between 1992 and 2021, with thousands more under a law that covers Washington, D.C.

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who studies sentencing and clemency, said the actual number of people released from prison by the pardons will be small. Because the law is a misdemeanor, federal prosecutors frequently do not charge simple possession on its own, he said.

“To people who have that marijuana conviction on the record it is significant though. It is something that they won’t have to report in the future,” Osler said. “That’s probably a burden lifted off of a lot of people, and that’s a good thing.”

Osler said the last time a president granted pardons on the same scale was when President Jimmy Carter granted a blanket pardon to hundreds of thousands of people who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, a far larger number than those affected by Biden’s move.

“In terms of a categorical grant like this, it’s not done very often,” Osler said.

Osler added that pardon grants at the state level, such as those done by Colorado and Pennsylvania in recent years, can affect far more individuals.

Biden, in a statement, encouraged governors to follow his example. “Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said.

Congressional response

The announcement sparked dozens of Democrats to call for Biden and Congress to do more on marijuana legalization, including Senate hopefuls like Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called the pardon announcement “a huge step forward to correct decades of over-criminalization.”

“I hope this executive action will be a catalyst for more change as I continue to make progress with members of Congress from across the political and ideological spectrum to pass legislation that brings federal marijuana laws in line with views of the overwhelming majority of Americans,” Schumer said.

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill with Schumer to legalize marijuana over the summer, but the legislation has not seen action. Wyden praised Biden’s announcement in a statement, including the president’s call for a study of how marijuana is classified as a drug by the Department of Health and Human Services, but said it may not be enough.

“A review by HHS of how cannabis is scheduled is welcome, but those of us who have been advocating for reform, we already know that a comprehensive federal solution is needed,” Wyden said.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws called Biden’s announcement “long overdue” in a press release and called on the administration to fully remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and for Congress to legalize the drug.

“Congress should be inspired by the Administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the President’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history,” the statement said.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., criticized Biden’s move on Twitter. With a few weeks left until the midterm election, Republicans have sought to use a rise in violent crime to drive voters to the polls.

“In the middle of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to pot heads — many of whom pled down from more serious charges. This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership,” Cotton tweeted.

Osler said Biden’s pardons target a subset of the far larger number of people convicted of possession with intent to sell — a felony with penalties ranging from five years to life imprisonment.

“No, this is not going to change the landscape. It doesn’t repair the damage done by the war on drugs, but for some people, it will be a good thing,” Osler said.

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