President Joe Biden took a step towards ending the criminalization of marijuana when he announced on Thursday that he would be issuing pardons for Americans convicted under federal law for “simple marijuana possession.” The move was widely praised by folks from both sides of the political spectrum.
Biden’s pardon would not free anyone from prison as there are currently no inmates in federal facilities who were convicted solely of simple marijuana possession. However, for those who have been convicted of the offense in the past, it will benefit them by taking it off their record. This means they will no longer have this obstacle when it comes to obtaining employment, educational opportunities, and housing.
In his announcement, the president acknowledged that most Americans doing time for low-level marijuana offenses are imprisoned at the state level. He called on governors to take similar action and pardon these convictions.
“I’m calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses. Just as no one should be in federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said.
Some governors issued public replies to Biden’s entreaty.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania posted a tweet noting that he had “just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for people with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions.”
I just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for people with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions.
Under Pennsylvania law, I don't have unilateral pardon authority — but I'm doing everything I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs. https://t.co/2eKOC5hZm0
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) October 6, 2022
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office issued a statement explaining that the state has “already taken action on this issue at the ballot box in 2008 and again in 2018” and that early during her term, she “signed bipartisan Clean Slate legislation to create a process for people convicted of misdemeanors, including marijuana offenses, to apply for streamlined expungement.”
Steve Sisolak, Democratic governor of Nevada, also pointed to a bill passed in 2020 that would pardon “thousands” of residents who had been prosecuted for minor marijuana charges. “In 2020, I brought forward – and the Nevada State Board of Pardons Commissioners passed – a resolution to summarily pardon thousands of persons who were convicted of minor marijuana offenses,” he tweeted.
Nevada continues to lead the way.
In 2020, I brought forward – and the Nevada State Board of Pardons Commissioners passed – a resolution to summarily pardon thousands of persons who were convicted of minor marijuana offenses.https://t.co/r12hhMxmdR.
— Governor Sisolak (@GovSisolak) October 6, 2022
Predictably, Republican governors balked at the idea. Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas released a statement arguing that pardoning individuals for low-level marijuana offenses was a “flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse.”
“The Department of Justice should not issue blanket pardons but each case should be looked at individually,” Hutchinson insisted, also noting that “[a]s governor, I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.”
A spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gave a similar response:
“Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals. The Governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon.”
As of this writing, no other Republican governor has responded to Biden’s announcement. This isn’t surprising. Too many GOP leaders are on the wrong side of this issue. Polling shows even most Republicans are in favor of at least decriminalizing marijuana at least for medical use. This number is only going to grow as more folks on the right are more educated on marijuana. Pretending that we should remain in the days of “Reefer Madness” is yet another example of old-school thinking.
The fact of the matter is that nobody should be thrown in a cage or otherwise punished simply for using marijuana. Pardons such as these make sense for those who have been convicted solely of simple possession. Republicans could have taken this opportunity to one-up Democrats and push for even more measures that would prevent the government from dictating whether or not someone can use weed for medical or recreational use. But, as usual, they rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.