President Biden made constructive use of his executive authority on Thursday, pardoning thousands of people convicted under federal laws for marijuana possession. Biden also said that his administration would review marijuana’s legal classification (which currently places the drug in the same category as heroin and LSD). The pardon was an overdue no-brainer and a progressive victory for a President who, despite signaling progressive values, has often failed to act progressively – and is in fact, a primary architect of the U.S. mass incarceration state.
“The pardons will clear everyone convicted on federal charges of simple possession since it became a crime in the 1970s,” the New York Times reported. “Officials said full data was not available but noted that about 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession between 1992 and 2021, not counting legal permanent residents.”
Discussion Centers on This Being a Racial Issue
“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many states,” Biden tweeted. Then, Biden pivoted into a racial analysis of the policy because he’s a Democrat and it’s the 2020s and there is seemingly no other lens for Democrats in ...-George Floyd world. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction,” Biden said. “Today we begin to right these wrongs … while white and black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.” (Granted, drug enforcement and mass incarceration have disproportionately affected non-white populations but when you make absolutely everything about race, it becomes quite difficult to discern between what is about race and what is not about race. I digress.)
Biden Pardon: Nothing to Declare
While no one is currently serving time in federal prison for marijuana possession, the pardon will still have significant, albeit less dramatic effects. Namely, the pardon will make it easier for people with previous marijuana possession convictions to get a job, find a home, and go to college; they will no longer have the scarlet letter of a federal conviction sewn to every application they submit.
Biden also urged governors to “follow his lead for people convicted on state charges of simple possession, who vastly outnumber those charged under federal laws,” the New York Times reported.
Although, Biden’s pardons don’t quite go far enough. The pardons will not apply to people who sold or distributed marijuana. The absurdity here is that we now have straight-up, brick-and-mortar retailers selling and distributing marijuana on street corners. That citizens who undertook identical endeavors, with more entrepreneurial methods, in a time before doing so was fashionable, are now incarcerated, is stunning hypocrisy.
Biden’s “Tough on Crime” Career
The limited nature of Biden’s pardons speaks to the tough-on-crime ethos that Biden has employed for the vast majority of his fifty-year political tenure. Biden’s criminal justice record is most closely associated with President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act – which Biden constructed. The signing “was the culmination of [Biden’s] decades-long effort to more closely marry the Democratic party and law enforcement, and to transform the country’s criminal justice system in the process,” the New York Times reported. “He had won.”
“The truth is,” Biden said in a 1993 speech, “every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.” In 1994, Biden spoke in a similar tone: “Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say, ‘Law and order,’ the Democratic match or response was, ‘Law and order with justice’ – whatever that meant. And I would say, ‘Lock the S.O.B.s up.’”
Well, through Biden’s effort and guidance that is exactly what we’ve done – we’ve locked ‘em up – at a rate unmatched on planet Earth. Most U.S. states have incarcerated more people than most countries. For example, Rhode Island has incarcerated more people than South Africa. Vermont has incarcerated more people than Italy.
Think about that.
The results have been ruinous. And while I don’t wish to promote any of the anti-cop sentiment that is so fashionable (and so misguided) right now – we do need cops, we do need to prosecute crimes – the Biden-constructed mass incarceration state was a tragic criminal justice policy decision laced with cruelty and counterproductiveness.
Yet, Biden’s marijuana possession pardon doesn’t come close to amending his pernicious influence on the US criminal justice system – but it’s a small step in the right direction.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.