In a welcome move, President Biden has ordered the release of thousands of prisoners who were being held just for marijuana possession or consumption.
Biden on Thursday pardoned all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, a move that senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans charged with that crime.
As part of the announcement, Biden also encouraged governors to take similar steps to pardon state simple marijuana possession charges, a move that would potentially affect many thousands more Americans.
And the President will task the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law, the first step toward potentially easing a federal classification that currently places marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD.
“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a video announcing his executive actions. “It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” the President said.
The moves Biden announced Thursday stop short of full decriminalization, which has enjoyed growing support among both political parties. But they are the first significant steps taken by a US president toward removing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana.
The US is known for having a highly punitive justice system, preferring to to take the view that people who commit crimes deserve to be treated very harshly, and hence we have disproportionately severe sentencing for offenses with people even receiving long sentences for extremely minor crimes under the infamous slogan of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. When this is coupled with police and prosecutors who are more concerned with getting convictions and ‘closing the case’ than with making sure that the person is truly guilty, it is no surprise that the US has both the highest number of people in prison and the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and that we repeatedly hear of people who have been exonerated after spending even decades in prison. Of course, this is only for crimes committed by the poor and marginalized. When it comes to white-collar crimes by the upper classes and corporations, we have a very lenient regime.
I hope Biden also decriminalizes marijuana. A case can also be made for decriminalize all personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine. Portugal is one country that has decriminalized personal use of all recreational drugs including cocaine and heroin and it has not collapsed. Here is the story of how that came about.
I was also pleased to read abut the governor of Oregon who uses the power of clemency to right some of the injustices and mitigate some of the harshness.
Last October, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, signed an executive order granting clemency to 73 people who had committed crimes as juveniles, clearing a path for them to apply for parole.
The move marked the high point in a remarkable arc: as Brown approaches the end of her second term in January, she has granted commutations or pardons to 1,147 people – more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined.
When Brown, a Democrat, became governor in Oregon in 2015, she received the power of executive clemency – an umbrella term referring to the ability of American governors and the president to grant mercy to criminal defendants. Clemency includes pardons, which fully forgive someone who has committed a crime; commutations, which change prison sentences, often resulting in early release; reprieves, which pause punishment; and eliminating court-related fines and fees.
During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brown was one of 18 governors across the US who used clemency to quickly reduce prison populations in the hopes of curbing virus transmission
She has pardoned 63 people. Most notably, she has commuted the sentences of 144 people convicted of crimes as serious as murder, yet have demonstrated “extraordinary evidence of rehabilitation”.
The US has to move towards a more humane justice system and ending the war on drugs would be a good start.