President Joseph Biden’s historic announcement that he would pardon all federal marijuana possession convictions and direct administration officials to study easing restrictions on the drug sent shockwaves across the country on Thursday, with activists, cannabis industry officials, pundits, and policymakers all weighing in on the issue. Biden announced the move on Thursday, finally taking the first steps on a pledge while running for office to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.
“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,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”
The president’s pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more in the District of Columbia, according to a report from The New York Times. Biden also called on governors to take similar action at the state level, where the vast majority of cannabis possession charges are filed and prosecuted.
The president also called on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to review the continued classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. According to the statute, the Schedule 1 classification is meant for drugs with no medical value and a high propensity for abuse.
Pardons Draw Swift Reaction
Biden’s announcement caused a flurry of excitement and activity in the cannabis community and beyond, sending marijuana-related stocks surging and spurring predictions on how the move might affect next month’s midterm elections. Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a fellow Democrat and U.S. Senate candidate, urged Biden to decriminalize cannabis when they met in Pittsburgh over Labor Day Weekend. He reiterated his stance after news of Biden’s pardons broke on Thursday.
“People’s lives should not be derailed because of minor, nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. That’s common sense. As Lt. Governor, I traveled across the commonwealth to all 67 counties for a listening tour on the legalization of marijuana,” Fetterman said in a statement. “I heard countless stories from Pennsylvanians about what this simple and just step of decriminalizing marijuana would mean to them. Too many lives—and lives of Black and brown Americans in particular—have been derailed by this criminalization of this plant.”
Pundits Ponder Pot Pardons
Political analysis of the pardons announced by the White House on Thursday suggested that the decision could have an influence on next month’s midterm elections, although opinions did not agree on which side would benefit. Some suggested that Biden’s announcement bolsters Republican claims that Democrats are soft on crime, while others believe the move will encourage Democratic and progressive voters to show up at the polls in November.
Former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is running for governor in Texas in an effort to turn the state’s executive office blue, issued a statement saying “When I am governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession.”
His opponent, incumbent Governor Greg Abbott, also seized on the president’s announced pardons as a political talking point, rejecting Biden’s call for governors to take similar action at the state level.
“Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement quoted by CNN.
Mary Pryor, co-founder of Cannaclusive, a media services company built to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers through imagery and education, characterized Biden’s pardons as “a major step forward” and urged more progress on comprehensive criminal justice reform to help those harmed by nearly a century of cannabis prohibition.
“Now it’s time to truly dive into restorative harm repair and make sure that access to careers in cannabis or any field is possible for all of those who will be pardoned,” Pryor, who is also a board member of The Parent Company’s Social Equity Fund, said in a statement. “And while this milestone is indeed a major victory, we still need to educate society around the deeper harms of the War on Drugs when it comes to resources and reparative justice.”
Nancy Whiteman, CEO of cannabis edibles manufacturer Wana Brands, applauded the president’s pardons.
“It is incredible news to hear that President Biden is calling for the pardons of prisoners convicted and held on simple federal marijuana possession charges, a move that will impact over 6,500 individuals,” Whiteman said in an email statement. “This is an important step in full decriminalization and a meaningful way to begin to address the racial disparities around the arrests and convictions of BIPOC people.”
Investors viewed Biden’s plan to pardon cannabis possession convictions and reschedule marijuana as an opportunity, sending shares of legal cannabis companies soaring in Thursday’s trading, according to a report from Reuters. Two of the largest publicly traded cannabis companies posted strong gains, with Tilray shares up 22% and the stock price of Canopy Growth jumping 31%. The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF, which has shares of several cannabis companies, rose nearly 20%.
Not Enough, or Too Much?
As can be expected, positive reaction to Biden’s pardons and move to reschedule cannabis was not universal. Many activists and cannabis industry insiders believe the president did not go far enough, while some conservative voices balked at the reforms. Andy Singh, CEO and founder of vape manufacturer Nuvata, said that “President Biden’s statement on the marijuana reform is a long-overdue step in the right direction.”
“However, we have been made these same assurances when he was running for president. At this point, only actions will really be made believable,” Singh wrote in an email to High Times. “It’s been two years since he’s been president, this was one of the very first items he should have addressed as people are unnecessarily suffering in prison daily simply from possession of a plant medicine.”
Dr. Carl Hart, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and the author of the book Drug Use for Grown-Ups, said on social media that the president’s action does not go far enough and suggested political motives are in play.
“While I’m delighted that ~7k ppl will be relieved of MJ possession charges, I’m disappointed that @JoeBiden has not taken steps to ensure that no one is arrested for possessing ANY drug. This strikes me as a weak move for votes. Legalize all drugs,” Hart tweeted on Thursday.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and staunch “tough-on-crime” conservative, decried the action from the White House.
“In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders—many of whom pled down from more serious charges,” Cotton wrote on Twitter. “This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership.”
At the grassroots level, many voters are likely to support Biden’s pardons of federal marijuana convictions. Last year, a Gallup poll found that a record-high 68% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.