During his campaign, centered on ‘Promises Kept,’ Biden erroneously implies that marijuana pardons resulted in the complete expungement of records and the release of incarcerated individuals.
On October 6, 2022, President Biden issued a statement where he pledged to “decriminalize the usage of cannabis and automatically erase all past convictions related to cannabis” as a key component of his “Plan For Black America.” This commitment had also been prominently featured in his campaign manifesto released on May 5, 2020.
Upon taking up residence in the White House, Biden implemented a policy initiative purportedly aimed at addressing the racial inequalities associated with marijuana enforcement and mitigating the adverse repercussions stemming from cannabis convictions. The policy came in the form of a Presidential Proclamation , which granted a ” full, unconditional, and categorical pardon for certain prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana.”
However, since its implementation and a subsequent proclamation made in December of 2023, advocates have voiced their discontent, arguing that his proposal lacked the vigor required and advocated for the complete legalization of marijuana instead.
At a rally in South Carolina Saturday, Biden stated, “I keep my promises when I said no one—no one—should be in prison for merely possessing marijuana or using it, and their records should be expunged.”
The pardon, while undoubtedly a step in the right direction, did not achieve with Biden’s earlier campaign commitments of decriminalizing cannabis use and expunging prior convictions. Instead, it applied only to individuals who had already completed their sentences for federal marijuana possession offenses and had no other convictions, except for minor traffic violations.
The intention behind the marijuana pardons was to provide relief and recognition to those who had faced punishment and societal stigma for involvement with a substance now legalized or decriminalized in most states. It also aimed to restore certain civil rights lost due to these convictions, including the right to vote, serve on juries, and own firearms.
However, one significant shortcoming became apparent—the pardon did not expunge the records of the recipients. This means that despite the pardon, their convictions would still be visible to employers, landlords, lenders, and others conducting background checks.
This, despite the assertion that the “President’s pardon lifts barriers to housing, employment, and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior offenses.”
It’s worth noting that as of January 2022, a U.S. Sentencing Commission report revealed that no offenders remained in federal prison solely for simple possession of marijuana. The majority of federal marijuana offenders were serving sentences for more serious charges like trafficking, cultivation, or distribution, which were not covered by the pardon.
Moreover, the marijuana pardons had no jurisdiction over state or local convictions or laws, which account for the majority of marijuana arrests and prosecutions in the United States. FBI data from 2020 indicates that over half a million people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, with nearly 90% of them facing charges solely for possession. These individuals continue to grapple with legal consequences and discrimination, especially in states where marijuana remains illegal or restricted.
While the Biden’s marijuana pardons undoubtedly changed the lives of a scant subsection of cannabis related crimes, it pales in comparison to Biden’s campaign promises of comprehensive marijuana reform. It doesn’t address the root issues and injustices stemming from federal marijuana laws, which still classify cannabis as a Schedule I substance, despite its widespread acceptance and use.
Biden’s actions—or lack thereof—on this front have left many disillusioned. To some, he simply has not taken serious steps to change policies related to marijuana, which they say is evident in his as of yet non-support for support initiatives like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would end the federal prohibition on cannabis and provide social and economic justice for communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.
This isn’t the first time Biden’s remarks regarding his achievements have come under scrutiny. Throughout his career, he has faced accusations of dishonesty, plagiarism, and outright exaggeration. Such instances raise questions about his credibility and consistency as someone interested in enacting any substantial reform.
While Biden’s marijuana pardons were a positive from a conceptual standpoint, they ultimately did not fulfill the grand promises made during his campaign. At its core, it could be said that Biden’s proclamation was a technically necessary step toward righting past wrongs, even if it did little, if anything, to address the systemic issues surrounding marijuana prohibition in the United States.
As debates around cannabis reform continue, it’s essential to hold leaders accountable for their campaign commitments and actions. Regardless of where one lands on the political spectrum, it’s not unreasonable to demand more than largely symbolic gestures from our leaders, if real progress and tangible change are to be achieved.
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