President Biden’s Historic Pardons: Correcting Racial Disparities in Nonviolent Marijuana Convictions

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden demonstrated his use of presidential clemency power on Friday when he pardoned thousands of individuals convicted on federal land for nonviolent marijuana violations. Biden’s decision addressed the issue of racial disparities in drug prosecution and sentencing, a matter of great importance. Although criminal laws are meant to apply to all Americans equally, small amounts of cannabis possession or use have disproportionately affected Black individuals. Unequal enforcement can turn a colorblind law into an instrument of injustice. Clemency can help rectify these flaws in the criminal justice system.

This marks the second time Biden has granted cannabis pardons, with the first round occurring in December 2022 and covering most convictions for marijuana use and possession. Last week’s action included the pardoning of individuals convicted of “attempted possession” as well, bringing attention to cases that may have previously been overlooked.

While these pardons are a positive step, they do not fundamentally address the larger issue at hand. Federal laws and regulations continue to enforce sanctions that are disproportionate to the alleged harm caused by marijuana. Despite its known dangers, marijuana remains classified as a “Schedule 1” drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a designation more severe than that given to fentanyl, which is widely recognized as a highly dangerous substance. In theory, possession and use of marijuana in the District of Columbia or on federal land can still result in imprisonment.

Critics of the law point out that few, if any, individuals are currently serving prison sentences under federal law for possessing small amounts of cannabis. However, felony convictions have lifelong consequences, affecting individuals who may never have stepped foot inside a prison cell. These convictions can hinder one’s ability to secure housing, qualify for loans, pursue higher education, obtain professional licenses, secure well-paying jobs, or even coach a child’s sports team.

Despite receiving pardons, those affected will still need to acquire a certificate to prove their eligibility to banks, landlords, and others, in order to move beyond their marginalized positions and become fully contributing members of society. Allowing these individuals the right to do so should be a shared goal for all of us. By reducing the number of marginalized people, society as a whole becomes safer and stronger.

The criminal justice system often struggles to find a middle ground between lifelong consequences and unenforceability for more serious crimes, such as petty theft. However, there are alternative options that provide more rational and proportional consequences for nonviolent offenses. By sanctioning individuals convicted of infractions or misdemeanors without condemning them to a lifetime of second-class citizenship, we can strike a better balance.

California has taken a progressive approach to dealing with possession of dangerous drugs like heroin. The state offers individuals arrested for drug possession an opportunity to enter either the criminal justice system or the public health system, providing a more reasonable and proportionate level of enforcement for behavior that society aims to discourage, without permanently marginalizing the offender.

When it comes to marijuana, many states, including California, have recognized that even misdemeanor or infraction prosecution is unnecessary. Simple possession of marijuana is no longer considered a crime in more than half the states, and this includes medical use. It is time for federal law to adopt a similar approach by subjecting marijuana to the same regulations enforced for alcoholic beverages.

In response to last year’s pardons, President Biden called for a review of marijuana’s controlled status. However, it is ultimately up to Congress to take action and rewrite the law. Until then, it falls upon the president to periodically grant pardons to individuals who should never have faced prosecution in the first place.

Biden’s recent pardons reflect a necessary step towards addressing the racial disparities and injustices within the criminal justice system. It is crucial that efforts continue to rectify the flaws that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. By revising federal laws and regulations, society can achieve proportional justice and ensure the well-being and inclusion of all individuals.