The White House said again that while President Joe Biden supports modest marijuana reforms like federal decriminalization, the administration’s doesn’t have “anything to announce today at this point” about whether or when he will follow through on his cannabis campaign pledges.
The latest comments came in a briefing on Monday at which White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about the statement from Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), the Democratic nominee for a U.S. Senate seat, that his campaign released hours earlier, calling on Biden to fulfill his pledge to decriminalize cannabis.
A spokesperson for Fetterman had said that the top state official “looks forward to talking to the president” at a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh next week “about the need to finally decriminalize marijuana” when the two meet.
Jean-Pierre didn’t directly respond to Fetterman’s statement; rather, she talked generally about the president’s focus on addressing the “addiction and overdose epidemic,” his commitment to “having evidence-based policies in place” and his ongoing belief that people shouldn’t be incarcerated over non-violent drug offenses.
She pointed to Biden’s clemency actions in April, when he commuted sentences of 75 people, many of whom had non-violent federal drug convictions on their records. But she said there’s no specific update she can share on the president’s plans to reform federal marijuana policy or issue mass clemency for people with cannabis records as he promised to do on the presidential campaign trail.
“As I’ve said before, the president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “We don’t have anything to announce today at this point but just wanted to lay that out for you.”
Later in the briefing, another reporter followed up by asking Jean-Pierre about Fetterman’s specific ask that Biden use executive authority to decriminalize marijuana, which the Pennsylvania official said he hopes the president would do before visiting his state for the Labor Day event. The reporter noted that several U.S. senators have similarly implored Biden to exercise that executive authority.
“Again, we don’t have anything new to share or any announcement to share,” she said. “This is something that he has talked about during the campaign, and you’ve heard from him many other times talking about his drug policy focus and what’s important to him. We just don’t have anything to speak to.”
“He’s going to continue to evaluate further uses of this clemency powers,” the press secretary said, echoing a point she’s made at previous briefings. “And as it relates to marijuana decriminalization, we just don’t have anything at this time.”
The reporter asked specifically whether the administration believes that it has the executive authority to unilaterally enact cannabis policy changes like decriminalization, as congressional researchers concluded he does in a 2021 report.
“I’m just not going to get into the specifics. The administration has made progress on its promises regarding marijuana,” Jean-Pierre said, citing the fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) authorized additional marijuana manufacturers to supply cannabis for research purposes.
“This is a key step in promoting research because it broadens the amount and quality of cannabis available for research purposes, and we will continue to explore explore what else we can do as far as reforms,”she said. “We just don’t have anything to share with you right now.”
Biden made his first public comments on marijuana issues since taking office after being pressed last month on whether he plans to follow through on his campaign pledge to release people who are incarcerated over non-violent federal cannabis offenses.
The president reiterated at the time that he doesn’t believe people should be locked up over cannabis use, said that his administration is “working on” fulfilling that clemency promise and vaguely alluded to a crime bill that he suggested would address the issue.
The president has received about a dozen letters from lawmakers, advocates, celebrities and people impacted by criminalization to do something about the people who remain behind federal bars over cannabis.
Six senators—including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ)—sent a letter to Biden last month to express their frustration over the administration’s “failure” to substantively address the harms of marijuana criminalization and use executive clemency authority to change course.
They said that the administration’s current stance is “harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes.”
The recently appointed U.S. pardon attorney also recently weighed in on the prospects of mass cannabis clemency, telling Marijuana Moment that her office handles cases independently, but it could be empowered to issue broader commutations or pardons if directed by the president.
At a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing in May, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and other Democratic lawmakers stressed the need for reforming the federal clemency process, calling for applications to be streamlined to make it easier for people with non-violent federal drug convictions to get relief.
Late last year, a coalition of congressional lawmakers introduced the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency (FIX Clemency) Act, a bill that would take clemency review away from the Justice Department and instead establish an independent board appointed by the president.
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The White House has been asked about the issue several times. Former Press Secretary Jen Psaki had said that the president has “every intention of using his clemency power” and is “looking at” relief for non-violent drug offenders.
Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said in June that the Biden administration is “monitoring” states that have legalized marijuana to inform federal policy, recognizing the failures of the current prohibitionist approach.
In the background of these administrative developments, congressional lawmakers have continued to work legislatively to put an end to cannabis criminalization.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Booker filed a much-anticipated bill to federally legalize cannabis and promote social equity last month, and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Booker subsequently held a hearing where members discussed the proposal.
Wyden recently conceded that the votes may not be there to pass the wide-ranging legislation, but he said that he remains hopeful that Congress will enact “some key reforms” on cannabis this session.
This has become a consistent talking point since the three senators filed the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). The sponsors recognize that political challenges, which is why Schumer has been in talks with bipartisan and bicameral offices about introducing what would effectively be a marijuana omnibus of modest reforms.
The so-called “SAFE Banking Plus” bill, which is still being finalized, is expected to contain provisions to safeguard banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses, provide pathways for marijuana expungements, promote research into the plant, among other potential proposals. Advocates have also been talking with lawmakers and staff about building on the banking component by incorporating several equity-centric amendments.
For the time being, Senate Democrats are touting one piece of incremental marijuana reform legislation that passed the chamber back in April. The bipartisan bill is meant to streamline the process for scientists who want to access cannabis for research purposes.
That specific legislation hasn’t been enacted into law. But there are hopes that a slightly revised version that was introduced last month could reach the president’s desk in due time. It already cleared the House just days after its filing, and sources say the Senate is expected to act shortly.
If it makes it through the chamber and gets to Biden, who remains opposed to full federal marijuana legalization, it would mark the first piece of standalone marijuana reform legislation to ever become law.