Gentle readers, once again we find ourselves in a Presidential election year. Feel free to join me in tuning out the deluge of reporting and social media as to matters you cannot control in the slightest, and which are mostly negative and discouraging.
Except for this blog post, which I promise will be great. In each presidential election cycle, the Canna Law Blog runs a classy series of posts grading the candidates as to their positions on cannabis. Four years ago, Donald Trump was President, which means we graded Trump and many Democrats. This time, it’s the opposite. We will grade President Biden and his Republican challengers, including Donald Trump. But today we start with #46, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. (Hunter’s dad).
Overall Grade: C
“C” is a middling grade, obviously, but it’s progress for Biden. Last time around, we (one of our law clerks) gave him a “D.” He certainly earned it. Biden was the only viable Democratic candidate who opposed cannabis legalization in 2020. In the decades before that, he was entirely bass-ackwards on things, being described by knowledgeable persons as “the architect, in all ways, of the war on drugs.” Yuck.
Biden’s positions on cannabis today
Things have changed a bit in the past quadrennium. The President has not pivoted as dramatically as Vice President Harris claims to have done on marijuana reform, but we’ve seen some progress. Exactly how good or bad Biden has been is a source of much debate. The people who argue that Biden is “responsible for the most significant marijuana reform in American history”, and those who send him thank you notes, are right. The people who argue that Biden hasn’t done nearly enough on marijuana reform are also right. I’m mostly one of the latter, correct people.
Let’s take a quick look at what Biden has and hasn’t done so far.
October 2022 pardons
The pardons don’t release anyone from prison, as no one was in federal prison for this dubious crime. Everyone serving time for simple possession of cannabis is in state prison for violations of state (and not federal) controlled substances laws.
It’s also important to understand that nearly everyone arrested and prosecuted for federal cannabis crimes is nailed for trafficking (i.e., distribution and/or intent to distribute). Biden didn’t pardon any of these people, including the nonviolent traffickers. I’m guessing none of them will ever see a presidential pardon. Their only hope is through proposed legislation like the MORE Act or the CAOA, which would make non-violent cannabis crimes expungable, automatically or otherwise.
Finally, the pardon is also just a “pardon.” It doesn’t expunge the underlying convictions at issue, or clear anyone’s record. In many ways, the 6,500 pardonees find themselves in a similar spot today as prior to October 5. They are still walking around as convicted criminals of record, and will be for the foreseeable future.
I stand by the critique.
October 2022 exhortations to state Governors
Concurrent with his feeble pardons, Biden urged all state Governors to issue state-level pardons for state-level cannabis crimes. I was underwhelmed with that effort too, explaining again that the pardons were not expungements, and that the crimes included simple possession, only. I also wrote:
Rather than direct his attention at state-level actors, however, or in conjunction with doing so, Biden should endorse one of the many federal legislative proposals to deschedule cannabis. There are some good ones. See:
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 1
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 2
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 3
Biden still hasn’t come around on federal legislation, and it appears that his message to Governors had little effect. Yes, the Oregon governor erased some 47,144 convictions the following month, but that was in the works already. The Idaho governor, on the other hand, issued a predictably annoying response to Biden’s request. In all, we haven’t seen much movement here, and nothing one could tie directly to Biden’s “follow me” missive.
October 22 request to Health and Human Services (HHS)
This is the big one, and the reason people are split as to Biden’s cannabis doings. After Biden requested that HHS review the scheduling of marijuana under federal law, the Department recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that it should reschedule marijuana, down to Schedule III. I analyzed what a move to Schedule III would generally mean here.
The HHS recommendation occurred in late August, 2023. What DEA ends up doing here is far from certain, and things seem to be moving pretty slowly. All of that was expected: our colleague Shane Pennington, an authority on the sausage-making process, recently opined that any status change probably won’t occur until after the fall elections. What Biden did here may ultimately be helpful, but certainly not as helpful as possible. Biden passed the buck, putting us on an uncertain, circuitous path.
December 2023 pardons and clemency grants
This proclamation came in over the holidays, probably to mitigate any controversy. Not that it seems terribly controversial. The December action pardoned convictions for simple possession and use on federal lands. It seems designed to fill in some gaps from the October 2022 pardons, though it doesn’t extend to military convictions, which is odd: affording the same small grace to military personnel as common civilians seems like a no-brainer.
Biden separately commuted the sentences of 11 Americans who were serving “unduly long sentences” with respect to non-violent offenses related to other drugs. That one was helpful and should have a more profound impact on the lives of those few individuals.
Biden has come a long way on cannabis over the decades, even if he hasn’t smoked any weed–as suggested by a primary challenger. However, the President had a chance to do momentous things without much effort. Instead, he has chosen what he probably thinks is a middle path, and simply ignored certain issues issues like the scourge of “gas station weed” from hemp. Overall, I don’t think Biden’s actions are consistent with his promises.
After his October 2022 efforts, I wrote:
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.” That promise sits moldering right here on the “Black America” page of his website. Biden has done nothing. During the first year of his presidency, it seems likely that 300,000 (or more) Americans have been arrested and convicted of simple possession of marijuana. Penalties range from low-level misdemeanors to life imprisonment without parole in extreme cases.
The link to Biden’s website page referenced above is now removed: instead you’ll be asked to donate to the 2024 effort if you deign to click through. Feel free to do that if you’re fine with half measures cannabis, from ongoing criminalization to an administrative scrum which may or may not lead to Schedule III.
So I’m sticking with the “C” grade for President Biden. Stay tuned for coverage of the other party’s candidates…. Should be fun.