President Joe Biden is again touting his mass marijuana pardons ahead of the election, though he’s curiously making a point to emphasize how the relief is limited to federal possession cases.
At the end of a speech on the administration’s student debt relief actions on Thursday, Biden briefly mentioned the cannabis clemency proclamation, signaling that he recognizes the popularity of the issue, particularly among young voters.
“I’m keeping my promise that no one should be in jail merely for possessing marijuana by the way—just for possession,” he said. “Nobody should be in jail. Those records should be expunged.”
The fact that the clemency action only affects people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses—and only for U.S. citizens and “resident/legal alien offenders”—has been a subject of criticism among advocates who feel that the president should provide more expansive relief, including for people who’ve sold marijuana.
But Biden seems to want to reinforce the limitations of his proclamation, even though a majority of voters back broad federal legalization.
The president also notably said in Thursday’s speech that cannabis possession records “should be expunged,” whereas he incorrectly claimed in a separate interview on Tuesday that “anybody who was ever arrested just for the possession of marijuana, their record is expunged” through his pardon action last month.
“They don’t have to list it anymore, and it’s going to free up a lot of opportunities,” he said, misstating the scope of his action given that pardons are generally more limited than expungements.
Biden has been routinely talking about the cannabis clemency decision over the past month, saying at one point that he’s “changed the lives of thousands of people.” But he’s now indicated on several occassions that he’s unwilling to provide further relief for those with marijuana sales convictions.
Activists with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Last Prisoner Project (LPP) and DCMJ staged protests outside of the White House last week to call attention to that issue, demanding that Biden release the estimated 2,800 people currently in federal prison for marijuana convictions that aren’t limited to simple possession.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said last week that Biden’s marijuana pardon proclamation should be “applauded,” but the action is nonetheless critically limited because it exempts non-citizens who constitute the vast majority of federal possession cases.
Meanwhile, the White House drug czar recently cheered Biden’s “historic” move to issue a mass marijuana pardon and direct an administrative review of the drug’s scheduling status. And he is again highlighting that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis—which he says shouldn’t be ignored because of separate concerns about youth use.
The Justice Department and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has said officials will “work as quickly as we can” to complete the analysis of cannabis scheduling per the president’s directive.
The Department of Justice, for its part, “will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense,” a department spokesperson said.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said that officials will be working diligently to ensure that people who received a pardon for federal marijuana offenses under the presidential proclamation are not impeded from future job opportunities.
Vice President Kamala Harris said last month that voters should elect lawmakers who support marijuana reform so that Congress can enact a “uniform approach” to the issue in light of the president’s cannabis pardons.
A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.