OPINION | Marijuana pardon: States should follow in Biden’s lead

On Oct. 6, President Joe Biden announced a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana and urged states to do the same.

While this announcement is a welcome move in the war on drugs, state pardons would affect significantly more people. However, for states to adopt this move, either governors would have to begin issuing pardons, or Congress would have to pass a marijuana reform bill.

Biden began his speech by saying, “As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.”

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, and between 1992 and 2021, over 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession. Biden’s move will allow anyone convicted since 1970 to have their records expunged, making it easier to find housing, apply for jobs and receive federal benefits.

This is one of the most drastic changes in drug reform a president has ever permitted. Biden has always had a personal understanding of this matter as it has affected him and his family, which he elaborated on in his speech, saying, “My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

I have also seen people I love affected by drug problems and believe in second chances. The research today shows that marijuana can be medicinal in many ways. However, I don’t think people should have simple possession marked on their records for years when it is legal in other parts of the country and is such a small quantity.

According to data available in the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, state and local law enforcement agencies reported 170,856 arrests for marijuana possession in 2021. Texas leads the states with the most marijuana possession arrests.

Southeastern philosophy professor Jeffrey Bell said, “When Biden encouraged all states to follow suit and do what he did at the state level, for in reality the majority of people convicted for marijuana possession are done so at the state level and in accordance with state laws, Biden was attempting to place Republican governors in an awkward situation. Long story short, Biden probably felt doing what he did was a win-win. Interestingly, you’ve not heard much pushback from Republicans for this, unlike the debt forgiveness program which has been something Republicans have protested.”

Nineteen states have legalized marijuana, and nine allow it for medicinal use, including Louisiana. While many states are considering marijuana decriminalization bills, it remains a schedule one drug. This makes it worse, legally than fentanyl, which is schedule two. 

Biden said, “I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

Though marijuana does have medicinal use, such as for glaucoma, the Controlled Substance Act classifies it as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. 

I believe the Controlled Substance Act needs a revision now that marijuana studies have spiked in research for anxiety and other mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, it is medically impossible to only overdose on marijuana. An overdose only occurs if it is laced with another substance, such as fentanyl.

There are currently more people being held in state prisons and jails for marijuana possession than in federal prisons. However, the president does not have control over these pardons – only the governors do. Some state governments have already reduced or eliminated the criminal punishments for simply possessing marijuana, but not all.

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

He’s right. It’s high time marijuana policy changes are made, and Biden’s move is a step in the right direction. States: do your part.