Reaction proved swift and mostly supportive to President Joe Biden’s October 6 announcement that he’s issuing full pardons for all federal offenses of simple marijuana possession.
Because D.C. does not have statehood rights, the pardon will apply to convictions under D.C. statute as well as federal convictions. The president vowed to encourage governors to take similar steps to pardon state simple marijuana possession charges.
“President Biden’s decision to pardon thousands of federal offenses is a second chance that countless have been waiting for,” said Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) in a statement.
“Generations of Black Americans – often young men – were confined to years behind bars on simple possession charges. It wasn’t enough that their futures were ripped from them; they faced endless barriers to rebuilding their lives upon their release,” Richardson said.
Although Black and white Americans used marijuana at roughly comparable rates, Blacks accounted for 39% of all marijuana possession arrests in 2020 despite being only 12% of the population, according to Pew Research analysis of 2020 data.
“The criminalization of marijuana has been a glaring racial justice issue in this nation, with Black communities bearing the brunt of this burden,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said in a statement.
“The action by President Biden to remedy the failed approach to marijuana is a crucial step to righting the injustices of our past,” she said.
Biden’s Announcement Bears Major Local Impacts
The racial disparities that characterize marijuana arrests nationally remain particularly stark in the District. From 2012, when MPD began publicly reporting marijuana arrests until the city legalized marijuana possession in 2015, D.C. police arrested just under 6,000 people for possession alone. More than 5,100 of those arrests—85% — were Black people.
However, it’s still unclear just how many people in the District actually have convictions for simple possession. Biden administration officials estimated the pardon would apply to “thousands” of people convicted under the D.C. statute in addition to around 6,000 people nationwide convicted under federal law.
In a statement, D.C. Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton praised the president’s actions but argued that the pardons made D.C.’s need for statehood glaringly obvious. Though the White House holds the authority to grant clemency for D.C. crimes, presidents have used it rarely in recent decades. Unlike states, the District does not have power to grant clemency to its own citizens.
“D.C. should not have to rely on the president to exercise mercy and mitigate the harms of unjust policies,” Norton said. “I applaud the president’s pardons but his administration has actively worked to block the District of Columbia from spending local funds on commercializing recreational marijuana, which is a shocking violation of D.C. home rule by a Democratic administration.”
Biden announced along with the pardons that his administration plans to review marijuana’s categorization under federal drug law. If marijuana becomes reclassified so that it’s no longer a Schedule I drug, the District would gain control over the decision to fully legalize and commercialize it; the rider that prevents D.C. from doing so only applies to Schedule I drugs.
Pardons for Possession Just One Piece of the Puzzle
More than 70% of D.C. residents support legalization, according to polling released by the I-71 Committee in September. Nationally, opinions on the issue remain more divided but even leaders opposed to full legalization praised Biden’s pardon.
Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), said in a statement that the pardon was vital for promoting criminal justice reform and for proving the Big Tobacco-backed industry doesn’t require legalization to change marijuana laws.
“No one deserves to be in jail for a joint. But we should also not be selling highly-potent THC products, nor should we promote and encourage use among young people,” Sabet, who served as a senior policy advisor in President Barack Obama’s drug policy office, insisted.
“President Biden continues to oppose the legalization of marijuana and we are grateful to the administration for this,” Sabet said. “We are also heartened by the president’s public statement accompanying the pardon, which noted that we need important ‘limitations’ on trafficking, marketing and underage sales.”
According to a Pew Research survey, many Black adults support legalizing marijuana, at least for medical use (85%).
The survey found that most favor reforms to the criminal justice system, such as expunging marijuana-related offenses from the criminal records of individuals convicted of such crimes and releasing people from prison who are being held only for marijuana-related charges (74% each).
Currently, no one remains in jail for simple marijuana possession under federal law, Biden officials said. A spokesperson for D.C. Courts said that though he couldn’t confirm it for certain, he didn’t think anyone was currently incarcerated for simple possession under D.C. law either.
For local advocates, this remains a key sticking point.
“When people hear ‘pardon’ they think people are getting out of jail,” said Adam Eidinger, co-founder of the organization D.C. Marijuana Justice, which spearheaded the 2015 ballot initiative decriminalizing possession.
He said he found the move encouraging but saw it as “just a small step” towards pardoning all marijuana crimes and taking the drug off the Schedule I list. Eidinger emphasized that limiting the pardons only to simple possession meant leaving thousands behind bars for growing or distributing cannabis – activities now legal in many states.
Roach Brown, a long-time community advocate for returning citizens, also said he saw Biden’s pardon as a small step in the right direction. But he sees pardons as insufficient to restoring justice.
“They’ve been arresting Black people in Black communities for years for simple possession. For having marijuana, or smelling like marijuana. For just being in a neighborhood where it’s been sold,” Brown said.
“And these guys who get locked up because they got caught on the playground with a joint—they couldn’t apply for a Pell Grant [to go to college]. They lost certain rights and benefits and employment opportunities. Is there any compensation for the damage?” he asked.