President Joe Biden’s newly expanded marijuana pardon proclamation is getting praise from top officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, with supporters cheering the clemency action as another step in the right direction.
The president announced the latest mass pardon—which covers people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses, and also provides relief for the first time to those who’ve possessed marijuana on federal properties—on Friday. This comes about a year after Biden issued an initial mass cannabis pardon and directed an administrative review into marijuana scheduling.
While some advocates have been critical of the limited reform, imploring Biden to vocally support efforts to actually end what he’s described as the country’s “failed approach” to marijuana, the new proclamation is still being touted as a meaningful, if incremental, example of the president’s commitment to repairing the harms of criminalization.
The pardons “will help thousands of people by making it easier for them to find a job, buy a home, and get an education,” the vice president said in a statement following the announcement. “President Biden and I have been clear: We must continue to change our nation’s approach to marijuana and reform the criminal justice system.”
President Biden and I have long been clear: We must continue to change our nation’s approach to marijuana and reform the criminal justice system.
Today, we took another step forward to make sure that our justice system truly lives up to its name. Read my full statement: pic.twitter.com/AJ5XryF5hx
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) December 22, 2023
“As I have declared many times before, no one should be in prison simply for smoking weed,” Harris said, joining Biden in a call for governors to follow suit with state-level cannabis relief.
“President Biden and I will continue to work to address historic inequities and racial disparities in federal drug policy and sentencing, to make sure that our justice system truly lives up to its name,” she said.
Here’s how other officials, lawmakers, advocates and others are reacting to the president’s pardon:
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D)
“I’m thrilled to see President Biden following Colorado’s lead by pardoning federal and D.C. marijuana use and possession offenses,” Polis, who has granted thousands of state-level cannabis pardons over his tenure as governor, said.
“This overdue action will help people who were convicted for something that is no longer a crime get jobs, housing, and more,” he said. “This is a major step toward breaking down barriers and helping more people and our economy thrive.”
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
In a joint statement on Friday, the CBC said it “applauds President Biden’s proclamation to pardon marijuana offenses, including the use on federal lands, which have disproportionately incarcerated and upended the lives of far too many Black Americans by creating barriers to employment, education, and housing.”
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA)
The senator, who has long championed marijuana legalization, wrote on Friday about how he personally urged the president to back comprehensive reform before he joined Congress. “This Christmas, as a Senator, THANK YOU,” he said.
A few Christmases ago, as Lieutenant Governor, I pushed for legal weed and delivering pardons for bullshit weed charges.
As a Senate candidate, I personally asked @POTUS to de-schedule cannabis and pardon those charges.
— Senator John Fetterman (@SenFettermanPA) December 22, 2023
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN)
“Nobody’s life should be ruined because of some low-level cannabis offense,” the senator said. “It’s ridiculous that Republicans keep blocking marijuana legalization.. BUT in the meantime, this is a great step by the President.”
Nobody’s life should be ruined because of some low-level cannabis offense.
It’s ridiculous that Republicans keep blocking marijuana legalization… BUT in the meantime, this is a great step by the President. https://t.co/fjJXWqE4J7
— Senator Tina Smith (@SenTinaSmith) December 22, 2023
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY)
“The failed War on Drugs began more than 50 years ago when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse public enemy number one,” Jeffries said. “At the time, there were an estimated 300,000 people incarcerated in America. Today, there are approximately 1.8 million, and they are disproportionately Black and Latino.”
“Today, President Biden took additional steps forward in undoing the legacy of the failed War on Drugs by commuting the sentences of several individuals with non-violent drug offenses and pardoning additional Americans convicted of simple possession and use of marijuana,” he said.
The minority leader added that he commends Biden “for acknowledging that much more needs to be done to right these historic wrongs by urging Governors to follow the administration’s lead at the state level.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
Blumenauer, a founding co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who is retiring next year after nearly three decades advocating for reform in the House, said in a statement that he’s “hopeful that today’s welcome news will not be President Biden’s last act to promote justice and rectify the ongoing harms of the failed war on drugs.”
Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA)
The congressman thanked the president, saying it’s “time to end the outdated war on drugs and push for drug reform.”
Thank you to @POTUS for pardoning thousands who were convicted of marijuana charges. It’s time to end the outdated war on drugs and push for drug reform. We can modernize hiring and treat mental health.
— Congressman Robert Garcia (@RepRobertGarcia) December 22, 2023
Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH)
“Pardoning those convicted of unnecessarily harsh marijuana charges is the right thing to do,” the congresswoman said. “Historically, these kinds of convictions have been applied disproportionally to people of color. I applaud President Biden for taking action.”
Pardoning those convicted of unnecessarily harsh marijuana charges is the right thing to do. Historically, these kinds of convictions have been applied disproportionally to people of color. I applaud President Biden for taking action. https://t.co/Gs6DfaR3MN
— Rep. Shontel Brown (@RepShontelBrown) December 22, 2023
Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA)
The congressman said that he’s “long championed pardons and clemency for individuals who are serving sentences for the possession of marijuana,” adding that these “misdemeanors can result in restrictions on folks’ ability to access educational aid, housing assistance, occupational licensing, & more.”
I have long championed pardons and clemency for individuals who are serving sentences for the possession of marijuana. These misdemeanors can result in restrictions on folks’ ability to access educational aid, housing assistance, occupational licensing, & more. Delivering justice… https://t.co/NgHAc8b47S
— Congressman Troy A. Carter (@RepTroyCarter) December 22, 2023
“Delivering justice for Black Americans who have been disproportionately impacted by this is essential to comprehensive cannabis reform,” he said, commending Biden for the pardon action.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ)
“The war on Drugs has failed to prevent the harm drugs can do and has burdened millions with unnecessary prison time and the stigma of a criminal record,” Coleman said, reacting to the clemency announcement.
Find out more about the Drug Policy Reform Act here: https://t.co/JbBp6odQw1
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) December 22, 2023
She added that a bill she’s previously sponsored to broadly decriminalize all currently illicit drugs would “rethink how we approach helping people struggling with addiction.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO)
“We welcome the news of [Biden] pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana charges,” the congresswoman said. “It’s time we fully deschedule & legalize marijuana, expunge records, promote equity in the cannabis industry, and end the War on Drugs.”
We welcome the news of @POTUS pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana charges.
It’s time we fully deschedule & legalize marijuana, expunge records, promote equity in the cannabis industry, and end the War on Drugs. https://t.co/8rrpTe26bu
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) December 22, 2023
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV)
“No one should experience disproportionately long sentences or barriers to employment for minor marijuana charges,” Titus said. “This is an important step towards modernizing our criminal justice system.”
No one should experience disproportionately long sentences or barriers to employment for minor marijuana charges.
This is an important step towards modernizing our criminal justice system. https://t.co/uVNX9XTuWl
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) December 22, 2023
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL)
“This will lift barriers for those pardoned to access employment and educational opportunities,” Wilson said.
Thank you @POTUS for today’s needed action to address the flawed justice system that criminalizes marijuana possession—something that disproportionally impacts Black Americans.
This will lift barriers for those pardoned to access employment and educational opportunities. https://t.co/UTQOCv6uP8
— Rep. Frederica Wilson (@RepWilson) December 22, 2023
California Sen. Scott Wiener (D)
The California senator, who has championed drug policy reform including psychedelics legalization and harm reduction legislation, called the president’s pardon proclamation “huge.”
This is huge – @JoeBiden is mass-pardoning people for cannabis simple possession & use. This will benefit so many people whose lives have been upended over the decades due to the misguided drug war. Thank you Mr. President. pic.twitter.com/4sOs8eCiyr
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) December 22, 2023
“This will benefit so many people whose lives have been upended over the decades due to the misguided drug war,” he said. “Thank you Mr. President.”
“Millions of Americans carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that the majority of voters no longer believe should be a crime,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM)
Kevin Sabet, president of the prohibitionist group SAM, said the pardon proclamation shows that “criminal justice reform is possible without commercializing the drug,” though he said it was “unfortunate” that the president didn’t use the opportunity to talk about “how dangerous marijuana is.”
BIDEN’S POT PROCLAMATION CONTINUES ADMINISTRATION’S OPPOSITION TO BIG MARIJUANA, BUT MISSES OPPORTUNITY TO WARN THE PUBLIC ABOUT TODAY’S HIGHLY POTENT WEED pic.twitter.com/sRkbI2ppQ9
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) December 22, 2023
Last Prisoner Project (LPP)
The cannabis reform group said that while the president’s clemency action is “progress for those eligible for relief, these pardons and commutations are not enough to achieve true cannabis justice.”
“As we have said before, pardons do not remove the needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities the President has rightfully acknowledged,” LPP said, urging people to send letters to the White House and Congress about the need for more comprehensive reform.
Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR)
Shanita Penny, director of CPEAR, called the clemency action “positive news for many,” but added that “there are still countless nonviolent offenders incarcerated for cannabis possession.”
— Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (@CPEARCoalition) December 22, 2023
“In a country where 100 million people have access to state legal cannabis markets—a federal framework that removes barriers to employment, housing and education opportunities to those impacted by cannabis prohibition is the only way forward,” she said.
Color of Change
The progressive organization said that while “many celebrate” the presidential clemency development, “we know it’s not enough” and “the administration should and can go further,” including by fully descheduling marijuana.
“Doing so would end the federal prohibition on cannabis and provide an important economic boon for the industry,” it said. “It should also include economic investment and restoration for the communities harmed by this unjust war.”
“These kinds of charges have been used to needlessly rip millions of Black people away from their communities. Meanwhile, marijuana has been practically legal for rich people and white people for years, while also being the main financial benefactors of practices that put others behind bars for the same actions. President Biden is right, ‘Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach.’ Too much money has been spent to and too much pain and harm inflicted from the lack of comprehensive action on this long standing issue. We look forward to watching today’s 11 families be reunited and will fight for more reunification in the near future.”
Cannabis Freedom Alliance (CFA)
Jeremiah Mosteller, executive director at CFA and a policy director at Americans for Prosperity, said that the president’s action is “a welcome next step toward addressing the overcriminalization of cannabis.”
“However, more needs to be done and the only way to truly end the federal criminalization of cannabis is for President Biden to work with Congress to deschedule the substance,” he said.
Meanwhile, the president’s expanded pardon proclamation comes as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is considering a recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services to reschedule cannabis to Schedule III that stemmed from a review that Biden initiated last year in conjunction with his initial marijuana clemency move.
In the year since his first cannabis clemency act, the president has repeatedly pointed to the action as an example of how he’s fulfilling campaign promises—though he’s frequently misstated the scope of the clemency by suggesting people were released from prison and had their criminal records fully expunged.
A presidential pardon represents formal forgiveness for the violation, but it does not constitute an expungement, which typically involves sealing records.
While the action symbolically recognizes the country’s “failed approach” to marijuana policy, it also falls short of the president’s pledges to more holistically enact reform by federally legalizing medical cannabis and decriminalizing the plant.
If DEA ultimately accepts the HHS recommendation to move marijuana to Schedule III, that would not legalize it. However, it would have a meaningful impact in other ways, for example by removing widely criticized research barriers and allowing state-licensed cannabis businesses to take federal tax deductions they’re currently barred from under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E.
Despite the fact that public support for legalization has reached record highs, especially among the Democratic base, the president has declined to embrace the broader reform. After Ohio became the 24th state to enact legalization last month, for example, the White House affirmed that “nothing has changed” with Biden’s position on the issue.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.