OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – In a recorded statement Thursday, President Biden announced his intentions to pardon thousands of Americans with federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.
The President’s full statement can be found below:
“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.
Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach. First, I am announcing a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. I have directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals. There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions. Second, I am urging all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses. 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. Third, I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. 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.
Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”Statement from President Biden on Marijuana Reform
The announcement followed the President’s campaign promise leading up to the 2020 Presidential election not to legalize the drug, and was one some now see as a step towards decriminalizing marijuana, while potentially shifting the trajectory of U.S. drug policy.
The move could affect more than 6,500 people across the country, but it doesn’t affect those who have been convicted on a state level, which is where most marijuana possession cases happen.
“Today’s announcement is actually more modest than probably legalization advocates wanted it to be. I think [President Biden] is making good on a campaign promise [but] I don’t think this signals the legalization of marijuana,” said Kevin Sabet, former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor and current CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which coordinates marijuana policy.
Subsequently, the President is now calling for states to issue similar pardons.
Public perception has changed in the U.S., and nineteen states have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.
“Simple possession is what you would think of just as your everyday person maybe has a little marijuana on them and they are arrested and convicted and sometimes they go to jail and it’s a very damaging thing,” said Michelle Tilley, Campaign Director for the Yes on 820 Campaign, which aims to “safely legalize, regulate, and tax recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older in Oklahoma”.
But while medical marijuana use is legal in Oklahoma, penalties for recreational use are steep: getting caught with any amount of the drug is punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
“Listen to some of the stories that we’ve heard of people again whose lives have been completely upended from a simple possession charge. It’s just really not a fair law,” she added.
In an email Thursday to KFOR, Governor Stitt’s office said it was not authorized to grant pardons for the convictions.
“The Governor doesn’t have the authority to grant a pardon unless he/she applies and that pardon is granted by the Pardon and Parole Board.”
Those close to the issue are split on policy versus advocacy, while questioning how far this will go towards decriminalization or legalization.
“It’s really just not a fair law,” said Tilley.
“[This news] makes our state question even more important. Our state question will provide the same kind of relief here on a state level where the majority of these convictions are,” she added.
“[President Biden’s announcement] shows you can reform our laws without legalizing,” continued Sabet.
“I don’t think people in public health want to see legal marijuana because of the damage that it can do, the psychosis, schizophrenia, mental health, the lung damage,” he added.
“Scientists are finding that marijuana is just much more dangerous than it used to be.”
State Question 820, which is a voter intitiative aimed at legalizing marijuana purchasing, possession and consumption is not currently on Oklahoma’s upcoming November ballot, but it could appear in the next general election in 2024, or if a special election is called.