Biden Announces Pardons For Marijuana Convictions
Thousands of people could receive pardons for past marijuana convictions. But does the policy go far enough to repair the harm caused by the War on Drugs?
President Joseph Biden, who once played a leading role in beefing up America’s mass incarceration regime, announced on Thursday pardons for thousands of people formerly convicted of federal marijuana possession.
Biden, one of the sponsors of the 1994 Crime Bill and a hawk when it came to Law and Order politics during his time as U.S. Senator, acknowledged that such laws have “upended too many lives” over the course of America’s destructive and decades-long War on Drugs.
In another potentially major step toward reconciling some of the harms caused by the drug war, the president said his administration would “expeditiously” review marijuana’s classification under federal law, a change that drug policy activists have long advocated for.
“This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine—the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic,” Biden said.
The move comes as 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. While the White House reportedly said that there’s no one currently in federal prison convicted on marijuana possession charges, the pardons will impact an estimated 6,500 people who formerly faced punishment during America’s punitive drug crusade—a war that started decades before its enthusiastic adoption by Nixon and Reagan.
Biden also acknowledged the racial disparities in drug policing, which has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities despite research showing that those groups and white people use drugs at similar rates. In fact, John Ehrlichman, one of Richard Nixon’s most trusted advisors, admitted in 1994 that the War on Drugs was racially motivated, which made it easier to “disrupt those communities.”
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” he said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night in the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
While the pardons won’t technically free anyone from inside prison walls, they could, in theory, make it easier for people to gain access to housing, employment, and education. Historically, people with previous convictions have suffered collateral consequences, which they carry around like an albatross. A report released in 2020 by the Brennan Center for Justice found that people with previous criminal justice involvement earn “significantly less” during their lifetime than those with no such experience.
“These losses are borne disproportionately by people already living in poverty, and they help perpetuate it,” the report’s authors wrote.
To be sure, Thursday’s move by the Biden administration will only help a tiny percentage of people convicted of drug crimes during America’s current incarnation of the War on Drugs. Federal prisons and jails house about 208,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, as compared to state prisons, which are responsible for more than 1 million incarcerated people. State prisons are also where the majority of people with drug convictions are held, and Biden has no authority to pardon anyone under a particular state’s jurisdiction.
That’s perhaps why Biden in his remarks on Thursday called on governors across the country to follow his lead.
“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.
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the loudest critics of America’s failed drug war, said the pardons were “long overdue.”
“There is no reason that people should be saddled with a criminal record—preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities—for something that is already legal in 19 states and D.C. and decriminalized in 31 states,” she said in a statement.
Frederique, however, said the federal government needed to move beyond the review phase that Biden suggested and to deschedule marijuana once and for all.
“Keeping marijuana on the federal drug schedule will mean people will continue to face criminal charges for marijuana,” she said. “It also means that research will continue to be inhibited and state-level markets will be at odds with federal law.”
The Beginnings of the War on Drugs
To get a better understanding of how the War on Drugs started, check out one of our most popular podcast episodes to date: “The True Origins of the War on Drugs.”
It’s incredibly insightful and may change everything you thought you knew about this ruthless campaign.
To get a sense, here’s a snippet from our write-up of the episode:
As conventional thinking goes, the 1970s, and this moment in particular, marked the beginning of America’s so-called “War on Drugs.” It’s a war the United States continues to wage to this day, contributing to a grossly overcrowded prison system — 450,000 are currently incarcerated for drug offenses, up from 40,000 in 1980 — and footed by more than $1 trillion in taxpayer funds. Even today, as the Trump administration moves ever-closer to reinvigorating this open-ended crusade, it’s Nixon who is disproportionately credited with having fathered this perpetual battle.
Yet it’s disingenuous to label Nixon the mastermind of the anti-drug movement, just as it would be ignorant to consider the drug war a modern-day phenomenon. The dubious distinction of America’s first drug czar belongs to a man few know anything about: a career government official named Harry Anslinger, who had taken over the Bureau of Prohibition just as the ill-fated ban on booze was ending. To get a more precise understanding of the machinations of Anslinger’s anti-drug blitzkrieg, one must only become acquainted with his bizarre statements on the correlation between drugs and minorities.
Anslinger may very well be one of the most influential figures of the 20th century considering how the drug war, and the larger tough on crime movement, has become central to American politics and identity.
Here’s what we said about his contributions at the time:
It’s near-impossible to exaggerate Anslinger’s contributions to the now-global drug war. Not only did he have an over-sized role in promoting and enforcing anti-drug policies and lobbying for stricter laws in the United States, Anslinger successfully strong-armed entire countries to wage this war, his way.”
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