On Jan. 16, President Joe Biden spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast event in Washington D.C., which was hosted by the National Action Network. In his speech, he briefly included a mention of consumers in prison for cannabis convictions. “And one other thing about equal justice. I’m keeping my promise,” he said in his speech. “No one—I’ll say it again—no one should be in federal prison for the mere possession of marijuana. No one.”
“In addition to that, they should be released from prison and completely pardoned and their entire record expunged so that if they have to ask, ‘Have you ever been [convicted]?’ You can honestly say, ‘No.’”
During his speech, he also mentioned his efforts to help release Brittney Griner, the all-star WNBA athlete who was detained and sentenced in Russia for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil. “And we brought Brittney Griner home just in time for Christmas. And we have more to bring home as well,” he said briefly.
Biden appears committed to his promise to prevent citizens from being convicted and sent to federal prison for cannabis crimes, especially since his initial announcement in October 2022. Previously, Biden signed an infrastructure bill in November 2021, which included improvements for cannabis studies. In December 2022, he signed a bill called the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act which “establishes a new registration process for conducting research on marijuana and for manufacturing marijuana products for research purposes and drug development.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to propose an amendment that would redefine simple cannabis possession in order to help guide judges preceding over cannabis possession cases. The USSC also released a report on Jan. 10 which analyzes data on cannabis possession sentences. During Fiscal Year 2021, 4,405 people received extra points on their criminal history record because of a cannabis possession conviction, and 1,765 entered a “higher criminal history category” because of that conviction. The report also found a decline in the number of people convicted for federal simple possession, from 2,172 in Fiscal Year 2014 to just 145 in Fiscal Year 2021.
The USSC initially estimated in an October 2022 report that 6,577 people could potentially receive pardons.
Biden’s pardon announcement in October has led other state governors to take similar action. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that he would be exploring statewide weed pardons, and later signing an executive order in November to allow medical cannabis use. More than 1,450 Arizona residents with federal cannabis possession convictions were pardoned on Oct. 25, 2022.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued more than 45,000 pardons in November 2022. “We are a state, and a nation, of second chances. Today, I am taking steps to right the wrongs of a flawed, inequitable, and outdated criminal justice system in Oregon when it comes to personal marijuana possession,” Brown said in a statement. “For the estimated 45,000 individuals who are receiving a pardon for prior state convictions of marijuana possession, this action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”
Most recently, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf granted 369 pardons on Jan. 12, which adds to a total of 2,540. “I have taken this process very seriously—reviewing and giving careful thought to each and every one of these 2,540 pardons and the lives they will impact,” Wolf said. “Every single one of the Pennsylvanians who made it through the process truly deserves their second chance, and it’s been my honor to grant it.”
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