It was with great fanfare that the president in October announced plans to provide blanket pardons to all Americans suffering from the stigma of having a federal marijuana possession conviction on their criminal records.
“There are thousands of people who have prior federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, educational opportunities as a result,” the president said. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”
The ensuing media frenzy was swift — and warranted.
Never before had a sitting president overtly acknowledged the failures of America’s nearly century-old experiment with cannabis prohibition — a policy that some two-thirds of Americans now say ought to be repealed and that nearly half of all U.S. states have done away with. And never before had a president promised to use the office’s pardon powers to provide legal relief to so many victims of that failed policy.
The move was truly historic; so much so that Biden’s Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice recently took to Twitter to hail the announcement as one of the administration’s crowning achievements of 2022.
Yet, despite this congratulatory brouhaha, there remains an inconvenient truth: None of the 6,557 Americans identified by the U.S. Sentencing Commission as being eligible for presidential pardons have received them.
Troublingly, some three months following Biden’s pronouncement, the Justice Department’s website specifies, “The Application for Certificate of Pardon for Simple Possession of Marijuana is not yet available.”
The administration’s failure to move swiftly to fulfill its pardon directive is terribly disappointing. As previously acknowledged by the president, many of those eligible for forgiveness have suffered numerous lost opportunities over the years because of a lingering conviction for behavior that most Americans no longer believe should be a crime. They should not have to continue to wait for relief any longer.
Fortunately, the news isn’t all gloom and doom. That’s because many states are doing what the administration has thus far only promised — pardoning ex-marijuana offenders and expunging their criminal records.
To date, 24 states have enacted laws providing explicit pathways to either expunge (or otherwise set aside) the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions. According to publicly available data compiled by NORML, state and local officials have issued over 100,000 pardons and more than 1.7 million marijuana-related expungements since 2018. And many advocates believe that these totals could grow even higher were Congress to enact bipartisan legislation like The HOPE Act, which seeks to provide federal funding to states for the purposes of reviewing and expunging low-level cannabis convictions.
Over the past decades, police have made an estimated 29 million marijuana-related arrests. Of those arrested, some 90 percent were charged with low-level cannabis possession offenses. It is time for lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum — and for the White House in particular — to move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis criminalization by providing long overdue legal relief to those who have needlessly suffered under America’s failed marijuana prohibition laws.
This op-ed originally ran in The Hill on February 10, 2023.