President Biden has injected a long-held policy dream of fellow Democrats into the final stretch of the midterm elections, announcing pardons for anyone convicted of a federal crime for possessing marijuana, and urging governors to do the same.
The pardons would affect about 6,500 people, and thousands more in the District of Columbia. The president also directed his administration to expedite a review of whether marijuana should continue to be listed in the same legal category reserved for the most dangerous drugs, including heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Reclassifying marijuana could end decades of misalignment between federal laws banning the substance and a growing patchwork of state laws that permit it.
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for loosening drug laws, said many people have been eagerly awaiting this type of announcement.
“The Democrats have put cannabis reform on their party docket and everyone is waiting for them to come through on that,” she said. “This is a big opportunity.”
Biden’s action — the fulfillment of a 2020 campaign promise — comes weeks before voters head to the polls, with some casting early ballots in a matter of days. Midterm elections traditionally are base contests, with the enthusiasm of the party’s core voters crucial to the outcome. The stakes couldn’t be higher this November, with Democrats clinging to razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate that could be reversed based on a handful of seats.
Sarah Gersten, executive director of Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit working on cannabis criminal justice reform that lobbied the White House on this issue, called Biden’s announcement “really bold and unprecedented action.” She also said the timing of the announcement “shows that he sees this as something that can really energize his base in the Democratic Party.”
The president’s decision on marijuana also comes on the heels of his plan to cancel as much as $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower — two moves certain to resonate with young voters who typically vote less than older Americans.
Erik Altieri, executive director of a grass-roots marijuana consumer advocacy group NORML, called Biden’s move “incredibly historic,” since no sitting president had previously initiated a formal review of marijuana’s classification.
“This hits all the demographics they need,” Altieri said of Democrats, calling marijuana reform popular with Black and Hispanic voters, voters under 40 and independents.
Biden also urged governors across the country to consider issuing pardons similar to the one he rolled out at the federal level. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Some governors quickly reacted.
North Carolina’s top two Democratic officials, Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, said Friday that they support Biden’s move and urged the Republican-led state legislature to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) immediately announced plans for a “a one-time, large-scale pardon effort” for people with certain nonviolent marijuana convictions. In the announcement, Wolf also wrote, “I’m doing everything I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”
Republicans appeared less eager to act. The office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is in a highly visible reelection race this year, was asked, but did not directly answer, whether it would follow Biden’s lead and pursue marijuana pardons in the state, the Texas Tribune reported.
In 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation legalizing “the use of smokable medical marijuana.” His office did not immediately respond to an email asking whether he would consider similar pardons in Florida.
More than three dozen states allow marijuana use for medical reasons, and more than a dozen states — including Alaska, California, Colorado and New York — have laws allowing adults to use it recreationally, according to the Cannigma, a news site that tracks the issue.
Five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — have initiatives on the ballot this fall seeking to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, according to Ballotpedia, which tracks elections across the country.
Biden’s move comes amid growing support for marijuana legalization, and worrisome signs that a core bloc of likely Democratic voters may not show up to vote in this nonpresidential election year. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month, 56 percent of registered voters ages 18 to 39 said they were certain they would vote, compared with 76 percent of voters ages 40 to 64, and 87 percent of seniors.
L. Joy Williams, a Democratic consultant in New York, said Biden is raising an important issue for Black voters, many of whom have been directly affected by years of strict enforcement of anti-marijuana laws. And with the midterms approaching, Democrats “need to overperform among the tried and true Black Democrats.” She added: “The only way to do that is to answer Janet Jackson’s question: ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”
Since 1970, marijuana has been listed by federal officials as a Schedule 1 substance, among drugs that are considered to have “high potential for abuse” with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Two years after the classification, Biden was elected to a Senate seat in Delaware.
Much has changed since then, except the reclassification of marijuana. “We need de-scheduling, we don’t want rescheduling,” Frederique said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who are both in jeopardy of losing their narrow majorities in their respective chambers, cheered the move. Pelosi called it “historic”; Schumer wrote that he hoped it would be “a catalyst for more change.”
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is in one of the nation’s most competitive races for Senate, described it as “a BFD,” an acronym for an extremely supportive but unprintable statement of approval.
Republicans, by contrast, have mostly remained silent on the issue, many preferring to focus attention on inflation and immigration at the southern border.
The offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment about the issue. In 2020, McCarthy mocked Democrats for pushing to legalize marijuana. In 2018, McConnell backed the legalization of hemp but not marijuana, saying they are “entirely separate plants.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is not up for reelection this year, was an exception. “In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders — many of whom pleaded down from more serious charges,” Cotton wrote on Twitter. “This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership.”
But two House Republicans welcomed the move.
“I want to give credit where credit is due. I don’t always agree with the Biden administration, I’ve been very vocal about that, but this is a step in the right direction,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) told Fox Business Network’s “Kennedy” on Thursday.
Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), a Republican co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, praised Biden’s action.
“Today’s announcement from the White House recognizes two truths: that continued and complete federal cannabis prohibition is no longer the will of the American electorate, and that the President knows his party’s all-or-nothing approach to cannabis reform has failed to produce results in Congress,” Joyce said in a statement.
Not long ago, Biden was viewed as an unlikely politician to liberalize marijuana laws.
In April 2019, the head of a marijuana reform organization told Rolling Stone that Biden had an “abysmal record when it comes to marijuana law reform, ending our failed war on drugs, and addressing mass incarceration.” That November, Biden said there had “not nearly been enough evidence” to determine whether marijuana was a gateway drug, Business Insider reported.
“It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally,” he said.
Karina Elwood contributed to this report.