Biden: “We’re Working on” Fulfilling Pledge to Free Marijuana Prisoners

    President Joe Biden says his administration is “working on” plans to fulfill his campaign pledge to free people who are incarcerated for marijuana. This marks the first time that the president has publicly made a substantive comment about cannabis policy since taking office more than a year ago.

    “I don’t think anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana,” Biden said on the evening of July 16, in response to a question from the New York Post’s Steven Nelson after stepping off Marine One on the White House lawn.

    “We’re working on the crime bill now,” the president added—though it’s not clear which legislation he was referring to.

    White House press staff did not respond to a request for clarification by publication time.

    The president has received numerous pleas from lawmakers and advocates to take executive action on marijuana reform, with many pressing him specifically to use his authority to issue mass pardons for people with nonviolent federal cannabis convictions.

    But while Biden previously remarked on the campaign trail that he doesn’t think people should be imprisoned over simple marijuana charges, he’s only taken limited steps to start granting such relief since taking office. In April, he granted clemency to 78 people, which included a handful of commutations for people convicted on cannabis-related charges.

    Prior to that action, the president had reserved his pardon power for the turkeys who were ceremonially spared around Thanksgiving.

    That falls far short of the mass pardons that lawmakers and advocates have been pushing for, of course, but it was viewed as a positive incremental step. Prior to that action, the president had reserved his pardon power for the turkeys who were ceremonially spared around Thanksgiving.

    Following that ceremony, the Post’s Nelson pressed the president on cannabis clemency, asking him if there were plans to pardon “any people in addition to turkeys.” Biden jokingly replied, “You need a pardon?” and didn’t respond to a follow-up question about marijuana prisoners. Until now, that had been the extent of Biden’s commentary on cannabis issues since the 2020 election.

    As the months have passed under the Biden administration, there’s been growing frustration over executive inaction, with many left wondering why the president has delayed taking a step that would arguably earn him bipartisan praise at a time his approval ratings remain low.

    Biden has received about a dozen letters from lawmakersadvocates, 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 earlier this month to express their frustration over the administration’s “failure” to meaningfully address the harms of marijuana criminalization and use executive clemency authority to change course.

    They wrote 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 US pardon attorney also recently weighed in on the prospects of mass cannabis clemency, telling Marijuana Moment that her office handles cases independently, but could be empowered to issue broader commutations or pardons if directed by the president.

    In light of Biden’s new comments, it appears that the pressure campaign may be poised to deliver results, even if the specifics on timing and scope remain unclear.

    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 nonviolent 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.

    A report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) last year affirmed that the president has it within his power to grant mass pardons for cannabis convictions. It also said that the administration can move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.

    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 nonviolent drug convictions.

    Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said last month 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.

    Biden has maintained steadfast opposition to adult-use marijuana legalization, so there’s still an open question about what he would do if legislation made it to his desk.

    A Senate bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity, which was first previewed last year, could finally be introduced as early as this week, two congressional sources familiar with the planning told Marijuana Moment on July 15. The House passed a similar piece of legalization legislation for the second time in April.

    Additionally, there are reportedly plans in the works for an alternative omnibus cannabis reform package if broad legalization doesn’t garner enough support to be enacted. Offices in both chambers are said to be discussing a plan to advance what would effectively be a marijuana minibus of incremental reforms, addressing issues like cannabis banking protections, Small Business Administration (SBA) program access and marijuana research, for example, but stopping short of descheduling cannabis.

    Biden has maintained steadfast opposition to adult-use marijuana legalization, so there’s still an open question about what he would do if comprehensive reform legislation made it to his desk. But in the interim, advocates will take any wins they can get from the historically prohibitionist president, which is why his brief statement about active work on clemency is notable.



    Photograph of Biden in 2019 by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Kyle is Marijuana Moment‘s Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

    • Show Comments