President Joseph Biden recently said that his administration is “working on” his goal to release federal marijuana prisoners, although he failed to provide details or set a timeline to enact a cannabis clemency plan for those behind bars for marijuana convictions. Biden made the comments after Marine 1, the presidential helicopter, landed on the south lawn of the White House on July 16. During brief remarks to the press, a reporter asked the president if he’d be honoring his campaign pledge to release all the marijuana inmates in prison?
Biden replied that he doesn’t think that “anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana. We’re working on the Crime Bill now,” according to an official White House transcript of the exchange. It’s unclear which legislation the president was referring to, however.
While campaigning for the presidency in 2020, Biden said that “anyone who has a [marijuana] record should be let out of jail” and pledged to “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes.” Biden has also said that while he doesn’t plan to end the federal prohibition on recreational marijuana, he’d support the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Only two days earlier, just before Biden reiterated his cannabis policy, the cannabis clemency advocacy group The Weldon Project and the National Cannabis Roundtable announced the launch of the Cannabis Clemency Campaign, an initiative that will encourage the Biden Administration and Congress to advance policies that would grant cannabis clemency to qualifying individuals who have been convicted on federal marijuana charges.
“Through cannabis clemency, President Biden has an opportunity to deliver justice for the thousands of Americans who have been impacted by federal marijuana prohibition and punitive sentencing practices,” said Weldon Angelos, co-founder of organization. “This would fulfill one of President Biden’s campaign pledges and send a powerful message about this Administration’s dedication to criminal justice reform. I’m proud to formally launch this campaign alongside the National Cannabis Roundtable and look forward to working together to redress the harm done by federal marijuana prohibition.”
Pardons Issued in April
In April 2022, the president issued three pardons and commuted the sentences of 78 nonviolent drug offenders, although only nine cases were related to cannabis, according to a report from Marijuana Moment. But so far, the administration has yet to announce a comprehensive plan to release cannabis prisoners. Ellen Mellody, vice president at cannabis public relations agency Mattio Communications, is a former spokesperson for the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign. She said that the president is “dropping the ball” on the issue of cannabis clemency.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the politics of the issue and forget that what we are really ‘debating’ is a policy that is based on lies,” Mellody wrote in an email to Cannabis Now.
“The American people continue to be far ahead of President Biden and their elected officials when it comes to supporting the overturning of outdated policies. However, Biden hasn’t put his full weight behind expungement, legalization or even doing the very basics such as bringing back the Cole memo,” a federal policy that protected medical marijuana companies operating legally under state law from interference by federal law enforcement agencies. In 2018, the Cole memo was rescinded by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“It’s extremely rare to have 68% of Americans agree on a policy, but today, that’s how many Americans support legalization in the US. Yet, Biden and other elected officials on both sides of the aisle have often ignored or laughed off their constituents largely due to education gaps about what these policies mean for Americans and their families,” Mellody said. “What we’ve found is that the more educated the elected official is on cannabis, the more they see how cruel criminal cannabis prohibition is. While this step is better than no action at all, Biden should start asking hard questions and stand up for the rights of Americans. If he did that, he’d be guaranteed to stand on the right side of history.”
Khari Edwards, head of corporate relations for Florida-based cannabis multistate operator Ayr Wellness, said that it seems natural for President Biden to follow through on his promise of cannabis clemency, noting that support for “cannabis and criminal justice reform has never been higher.” He added that he believes that the legal cannabis industry has a moral obligation to help those who have been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.
“With licensed businesses now able to legally engage in the cultivation and sale of cannabis, we find it wrong that others continue to sit behind bars for doing the same thing we do legally today,” Edward wrote in an email. “We believe the cannabis industry should collectively stand together to help others and be part of the solution.”
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