On Thursday, President Joe Biden announces his administration’s most significant action towards drug criminalization so far. The latest measure took the form of a mass Presidential pardon, which will nullify the criminal convictions of over 6,000 federal inmates for simple drug possession. The White House explicitly linked the move with a drive towards racial equity, promising more significant action in the future.
Thursday’s announcement came in the form of a tweet from the White House account, followed by a press release by a senior administration official. The limited move was presented as the initial first step towards broader change, with the President “Calling on governors to take action as well”. The measure in question grants pardon to around 6,500 federal convicts for marijuana possession, as well as several thousand others convicted by D.C. courts.
However, the measure does not actually put anyone out of the prison, as no one is currently serving federal jail time for simple marijuana possession. The symbolic gesture falls short of Biden’s campaign promise to free all marijuana convicts, of which there are currently 2,700 in federal prisons, according to the latest data. Overall, it is unclear precisely how many inmates are serving time in state prisons due to simple possession, which is a relatively rare indictment everywhere, with only 213 total federal sentences in 2017 for all drugs combined (92 out of it for Marijuana possession). Judging from the arrest records over the past decade, the number of states sentences is likely to be at least twice as higher, but overall, the number is less than 1% of all drug-related sentences, according to the latest data available.
Since 2012, nineteen states, the D.C. region, and two U.S. territories have passed laws legalizing the recreational use of the drug, with many other allowing comprehensive medical usage with regulation. Thursday’s announcement would serve as a reminder to the remaining states of the tremendous impact that the ‘war on drugs’ has had on the lives of tens of millions of Americans for the past half century.
This messaging was clear. President Biden declared: “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states”. The disproportionate targeting of people of color by law enforcement was also stressed by the Democratic leader, who expressed the hope that this reversal would clear the obstacles to these convicts to rehabilitate into society.
The announcement still falls short of the complete legalization promised by the Biden campaign during the 2020 Presidential Race. Nevertheless, it represents a rather huge step for Mr. Biden, who has been a staunch supporter of drug criminalization in the past, and strongly opposed the legalization efforts throughout his term as Obama’s Vice President.
The more drastic step by the Biden White House came with much less fanfare, and is likely only targeted at convincing conflicted voters for the upcoming midterm elections. It took the form of a formal request by the White House to the Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to reconsider the status of marijuana as a Schedule I drug. The official response from the Department is likely to take some time. If the measure ever succeeds, it will practically mark the end of the war on pot on a federal level.