In a public letter addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Minority Cannabis Business Association, National Cannabis Industry Association and the newly formed United States Cannabis Coalition, among others, reminded Biden of a statement he'd made on the campaign trail, when the then-presidential hopeful expressed a desire to decriminalize the plant and expunge records of marijuana offenders.
“I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period. And I think everyone — anyone who has a record — should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out," Biden said during a Democratic primary debate in November 2019.
The eleven groups want Biden to make good on his remarks, calling for the president to "immediately" issue a general pardon for all former nonviolent federal marijuana offenders, and free anyone federally incarcerated for nonviolent, marijuana-only offenses in states where their former pot crimes are now legal.
According to the letter, there is a precedent for such a move, with President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter both issuing general pardons in the 1970s to violators of the United States Selective Service Act for evading the Vietnam War draft.
Among the least approving of marijuana in the last Democratic presidential field, Biden tepidly endorsed decriminalization over legalization while labeling marijuana a gateway drug. However, he's since backtracked on his gateway drug comments and supported various methods of criminal justice reform. Last year, his campaign announced an intent to "decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level" in a list of goals set forward from a 2020 task force comprising Biden's and Senator Bernie Sanders's offices.
“President Biden was crystal clear on the campaign trail that his administration would prioritize criminal justice reform, and he explicitly highlighted his desire to 'zero out' the records of those suffering from the stigma of a federal marijuana conviction,” says NORML executive director Erik Altieri, who signed the letter sent to the president.
After Biden was elected, marijuana advocacy and trade organizations, including NORML, were hopeful that several of his cabinet members would continue supporting marijuana decriminalization or legalization, most notably his vice president, Kamala Harris, who'd introduced a bill that would have ended federal marijuana prohibition when she was a U.S. senator. Biden also appointed former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, another proponent of marijuana legalization, to lead the Democratic National Committee, and selected Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who has pushed for her state to legalize marijuana, as his Secretary of Commerce.
Much of the current focus in Washington, D.C., is on COVID-19 economic relief, but congressional leaders have already announced their intent to pursue the end of marijuana prohibition. Questions are starting to mount about the Biden administration's pace toward pot reform, and marijuana and social justice organizations that sent the letter have asked the Biden administration to address any doubt by streamlining federal pot pardons.
"We appreciate that the Biden-Sanders Task Force recommendations speak to these issues, and we recognize that expungement is an important part of the healing process. We ask you to clearly send — through a general clemency — a powerful message that our country is truly taking a new course on criminal justice policy and practice," the letter reads.
Even if Biden does pardon marijuana offenders, the action would only apply to federal convictions, not state or local charges. Most states that have legalized recreational marijuana, such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Arizona, Vermont and Colorado, have approved or enacted various forms of record-clearing programs for former marijuana offenders, with varying success.
In Colorado, a 2020 law gave Governor Jared Polis the right to pardon convictions of up to 2 ounces of marijuana possession. Polis used his pardoning power in October of last year, automatically clearing over 2,700 past pot convictions involving amounts of up to 1 ounce, rather than 2, citing the current state law that limits recreational marijuana possession to 1 ounce.
Find the full letter to Biden here: