On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a pardon for people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law. He urged governors across the country to do the same for those convicted under state laws and ordered a reevaluation of marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” the president said in a statement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.”
This is all true and completely reasonable. However, these pardons are quite limited — only about 6,500 people have been convicted of simple possession under federal law, people are generally convicted under state laws —and in context of the greater problem at hand, which is drug prohibition, they are more symbolic than substantive.
While symbolism has its place — Biden deserves credit for taking actions his predecessors were too short-sighted to take — what is actually needed is a reevaluation of the War on Drugs.
America’s prohibition experiment has criminalized millions of Americans, squandered well over $1 trillion, enriched street gangs and cartels, and distorted the priorities of law enforcement — while not only eradicating the scourge of drug addiction, but making it harder to save lives and help people.
We’ve all heard a lot about the fentanyl crisis in recent years. We hear tough-on-crime politicians and district attorneys champion harsher penalties as the solution, echoing the drug prohibitionist rhetoric of decades ago. This is nonsensical.
The fentanyl overdose crisis isn’t complicated. It’s the predictable consequence of government policies which drive consumers and drugs in high demand into the black market, of inadequate investments in mental health and drug treatment and of an insufficient emphasis on harm reduction.
Perhaps people shouldn’t use drugs. But guess what? People will, and do, for myriad reasons. Prohibition does not and will not stop them, it only exposes them to greater risks, like dying from fentanyl sold as something else, or getting caught by police and having their lives ruined by the government. But politicians prefer to talk around the problem because they remain committed to the fantasy that prohibition is sound policy.
As America learned a century ago with alcohol, prohibition is an ineffective means of dealing with intoxicants. It’s no surprise at all that prohibition of other substances has yielded the same results.
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Over the past two decades, the prohibitionist model has started to fragment. From California’s medical marijuana legalization in the 1990s to Oregon’s 2020 passage of Measure 110 to decriminalize personal possession of drugs to New York’s safe consumption sites, states across the country have increasingly realized the harms of prohibition and the need for a more rational approach.
Biden’s recent actions are consistent with this trend away from prohibition. But they aren’t enough. If he wants to lead, he should pardon all non-violent drug offenders, push Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and start a genuine discussion about the harms of prohibition and more humane and productive ways forward.
The War on Drugs is fundamentally a war on people, especially poor and minority communities. It doesn’t solve the problems of drug abuse, it merely compounds them and creates new problems. It is time to end drug prohibition.
Sal Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org