Better late than never is a truism that is entirely true regarding President Joe Biden’s blanket pardon for people convicted of simple possession of marijuana on federal charges.
The pardon will affect thousands of people convicted of cannabis possession under federal law, everyone found guilty of merely having small amounts of pot since doing so became a nationally based crime in the 1970s. The feds are still running the numbers but statistics so far indicate that about 6,500 people were convicted of possession of small amounts of weed between 1992 and 2021, for instance.
But here’s where the “howevers” come in. The vast majority of Americans who have suffered legal penalties and jail and prison time under pot prohibition — which was about as effective as the Prohibition years in which alcohol was illegal in this country — were prosecuted and incarcerated under state laws after being busted by local police. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from every walk of life. For decades longer than the absurd ban on alcoholic beverages, which made us the laughingstock of the world and spurred far more bad behavior — and the creation of organized crime networks — than it stopped.
So, since this move by the White House, however welcome it may be, however much it is the right thing to do, affects so relatively few people, and coming as it does just weeks before midterm elections in which the Democrats have every possibility of losing control of their slim holds on both houses of Congress — well, it doesn’t take a deep political cynic to see this as a symbolic move.
There are precisely zero people now in federal prison for simple marijuana possession. Why not expand the amnesty to those convicted of selling pot, too?
But the good thing about political symbolism? The reason a political leader grandstands is because there is a demand for it among the citizenry. This will be a popular move viewed as common sense on pot at last from a president. Whether or not it increases goodwill for Democratic House and Senate candidates in November — or boosts Biden’s dismal poll ratings — remains to be seen. But, as a move in the right direction after generations of presidents with schoolmarm attitudes toward pot — even those who had smoked the evil weed themselves — this new presidential order is to be applauded, and we do so.
In and of itself the ruling affects so few people among the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives were ruined not because of partaking of cannabis but because of the draconian laws against it, the move will in the end amount to nothing more than a campaign stunt if the Biden administration doesn’t follow through on the president’s promise to also review whether marijuana should still be in the same legal category as drugs like heroin and LSD.
“The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance,” Biden said, “more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense.”
It does not.
“That’s trying to change a policy decision that was made that marijuana is as dangerous as these other drugs, which we know is not true,” Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, told The New York Times.
Reforming that policy in an era in which dozens of states have legalized cannabis use and yet federal law still allows agents to go after pot smokers and confiscate the assets of locally legal businesses is important work.
And so is, in the medium term, work toward a wholesale reassessment of all federal drug prohibitions. They have for more than a century most negatively affected poor and minority Americans, compounding their hardships. “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,” Biden said. The same is true for all drug laws, which don’t work, don’t help people who abuse drugs and have created a byzantine national bureaucracy and a gulag to hold its victims in.
So we welcome this small step down the road to drug-law sanity, but emphasize the need to go further.