President Joe Biden is continuing to “evaluate further uses of clemency powers,” the White House said on Thursday after being asked for clarification about the administration’s plans for relief for federal marijuana prisoners.
Biden made his first public comments on cannabis since taking office earlier this month after being pressed on whether he plans to follow through on his campaign pledge to release people who are incarcerated over non-violent federal marijuana 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.
At Thursday’s briefing, New York Post reporter Steven Nelson followed up on those remarks, asking White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre whether the president also believes the people with federal convictions for selling marijuana should qualify for relief and whether the crime bill that Biden referenced “rules out potential mass clemency.”
Jean-Pierre started by noting that the president granted relief to 78 people, including those with non-violent federal drug convictions, in April, which she said is “more grants of clemency at this point in the presidency than any of his five recent predecessor.”
“He continues to evaluate further uses of clemency powers. We just don’t have any additional announcement to make at this time—but I can tell you that’s what he’s been doing during his administration,” she said, without addressing what role any future legislation might play to that end and ignoring the query about whether people who sell cannabis should remain in prison.
Advocates have heard similar refrains from the White House on marijuana clemency under the Biden administration before. And they’ve grown frustrated over the lack of specificity and limited action, especially considering Biden’s stated commitment to release people incarcerated over marijuana on the campaign trail.
The president was applauded for granting an initial round of commutations and pardons, but he’s faced intense pressure to issue a mass pardon, similar to how Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did for people who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War.
Prior to his April clemency action, the president had reserved his pardon power to 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.
Biden 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. But he’s yet to take meaningful action after more than a year in office.
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 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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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 offenses. 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 non-violent drug offenders.
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.
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 week, and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Booker held a hearing on Tuesday where members discussed the proposal.
Weldon Angelos, who received a presidential pardon for a federal marijuana conviction under the Trump administration, was among the witnesses who testified at that meeting.
Schumer, for his part, said last week that he is committed to working with bipartisan offices to get “something” done on cannabis reform “this year.” He’s seemed to leave the door open to using provisions of his legalization bill as the basis for an incremental marijuana reform package that he’s been discussing with bipartisan and bicameral offices.
The House passed a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation for the second time in April.
Biden has maintained a steadfast opposition to adult-use marijuana legalization, so there’s still an open question about what he would do if wide-ranging 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 hopes remain high over the prospect of administrative relief.