April 20, “4/20,” has long been established as an unofficial holiday to celebrate the cannabis plant. Its roots are reportedly in a code used by 1970s high school students in Calfornia. And their reasons for secrecy hint at why, in 2023, United States social justice advocates are using the day to demand federal action. They want to free all people incarcerated for marijuana charges and fully legalize the drug.
A coalition of 85 advocacy organizations led by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has sent an open letter to President Joe Biden, demanding that he work with Congress to deschedule cannabis, removing it from criminal drug laws, and approve legislation to legalize and regulate it.
Separately, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has organized a national lobby day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Students from around the country are speaking with their representatives and senators to support descheduling cannabis, expanding psychedelic research and therapy, and having the Department of Education adopt harm reduction policies on college campuses.
“To end and repair the harms of decades of racially discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws, we need complete and comprehensive legislative reform.”
Despite majority public support for cannabis legalization among Democrats, independents and even Republican voters, Congress and Biden have failed to change the status quo of federal prohibition. Legalization bills have stalled in the House and Senate, and Biden has so far taken just one major executive action on cannabis, with limited impact.
“You have already taken an important initial step toward ending the failed policy of federal marijuana prohibition,” the coalition’s letter reads. “To end and repair the harms of decades of racially discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws, we need complete and comprehensive legislative reform. This is not only the right thing to do, it is the popular thing as well.”
“We implore you to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure marijuana is descheduled,” it continues, “and encourage Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that includes criminal justice reform, repairing and centering communities most harmed by prohibition and criminalization, and a regulatory framework that is rooted in equity, justice, and public health.”
Although 21 states and Washington, DC have legalized cannabis for adult use, arrests for possession and other charges continue to disrupt lives nationwide every day. According to DPA, someone is arrested for cannabis every 90 seconds, with Black, Indigenous and Latinx people disproportionately targeted. Consequences are particularly severe for immigrants, documented or undocumented: People can be denied green cards or citizenship because of cannabis use, and drug arrests lead to many immigrants being detained or deported.
Biden has continued to oppose full cannabis legalization, while supporting narrower reforms. But after decades in public office, he finds himself in a shrinking minority among the general public and his own party.
Years of advocates’ efforts resulted in the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which the Democratic-controlled House passed in a historic vote in December 2020. But with President Trump in office and Republicans in control of the Senate, it was unlikely to move. The big opportunity came over a year later: In April 2022, the House passed the same bill, but with Democratic control of the Senate and Biden in the White House, the chance to advance it was wasted.
Despite that, Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), continued negotiations for their own legalization bill. In July 2022, they unveiled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. But again, legalization took a back seat and the Senate hasn’t held a vote since.
Finally that October, a month before the midterms, Biden announced the first major cannabis action of his term: issuing a pardon for all federal marijuana possession convictions, and ordering federal agencies to review how cannabis is classified by criminal drug law.
It was an important step. But it was more symbolic than substantive, because no one was in federal custody for marijuana possession alone at that time, and convictions for cultivation, sale and trafficking were ineligible for relief. No one was released from prison or jail because of Biden’s order.
As recent history shows, even complete Democratic control of Congress and the White House won’t guarantee progress.
The scheduling review got underway, however, and the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to make a decision on whether it will recommend keeping marijuana as a Schedule I substance (illegal for any use), moving it to Schedule II or lower (legal for medical use) or descheduling it entirely, like alcohol. (When exactly that decision will come is unclear.)
In the third year of Biden’s term, political dynamics have shifted. Republicans taking back the House have blocked the path to legalization once again. But as recent history shows, even complete Democratic control of Congress and the White House won’t guarantee progress. In any circumstances, advocates have to keep the pressure on.
SSDP’s 4/20 lobby day is an example of that. It’s part of a whole week of action, as students from across the US meet in DC to learn, train and advocate together.
Maya Tatum, an SSDP alum from Arizona State University, told Filter that on April 19, a large group of students visited the offices of Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Unlike Scott, Blumenauer has been a champion of cannabis reform for many years, and students had the opportunity to meet him in person.
“We were standing in the hallway,” Tatum said, “chatting with someone from his staff … and he walked up and started speaking to us. He went around and let folks give their personal testimonial about why they’re here, and what they’re lobbying for. He was very receptive to the message.”
But 4/20 itself is the busiest day, with students rushing through the tunnels beneath the Capitol to meet with numerous representatives and senators from their own states. “We have people who came to town from all over, and our staff coordinated so they can meet [their elected officials],” Tatum said. “We have over 20 meetings between all of our different chapters.”
Mary Bailey, managing director of the Last Prisoner Project, told Filter that her organization is also participating in the lobbying actions, supporting the students and calling for all people incarcerated on cannabis charges to be free. Bailey said she’s inspired by the hard work students and SSDP staff have put in.
“First they had to take a deep dive and get the contacts for all the offices,” she said. “Then they did outreach and followup to find times that work for these legislators. It definitely takes a lot of work on the back end to get the meetings scheduled in the first place. Then doing all the organizing, seeing them do trainings with the students—they have talking points to share with these legislators.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” she said.
Tatum explained how students are tailoring their messages to different elected officials in both parties, who have very different views. Because SSDP is speaking not just about cannabis but also psychedelics, overdose and harm reduction, she said, there’s a chance for students and representatives to agree on something.
“It really touched my heart and gives me hope we will be able to offer freedom for these people.”
“We approach everything from an educational standpoint and telling the representatives about what we’re focused on,” she said. “We’ve been talking about rescheduling and having some kind of expungement process for people who were charged with marijuana crimes in states where it’s now legal.”
Students are also sharing personal testimonies of how cannabis policy has negatively impacted them, she continued. “Obviously not every representative is going to be on board with what we’re doing, but we just try to get the message across and hope we find common ground.”
Bailey added that she and a group got to meet with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on April 19. Booker, as one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, is another longtime supporter of cannabis legalization.
“It was really incredible to have the opportunity to show him a printed book of prisoner profiles,” Bailey said. “To see the look on his face when he saw pictures of cannabis prisoners who are serving life sentences, to hear him say he supports efforts to release them, and that he wants to help do this work, it really touched my heart and gives me hope we will be able to offer freedom for these people.”
Top photograph of students meeting Rep. Blumenauer and inset photograph of students at the Capitol courtesy of SSDP
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from DPA to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.