During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden rightly stated, “No one should be in jail because of cannabis use” and as president, he would “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
After one year in office, this promise has yet to be fulfilled. It should be. It is time for the White House to take action and pardon those thousands of individuals who are saddled with a criminal record for a nonviolent federal marijuana-related offense.
This is primarily an issue of justice. Branding thousands of our citizens as lifelong criminals because of a marijuana-related offense results in a litany of lost opportunities — including the potential loss of employment, housing, voting rights, professional licensing and student aid — and serves no legitimate societal purpose. The imposition of such lifelong penalties is even more troublesome in instances where the criminal conviction is related to behavior or activities that many states have since legalized and regulated.
Taking action would be a pivotal first step toward offsetting the human toll taken by the decades-long enforcement of the ‘war on drugs’ — a war that has disproportionately impacted poor people and people of color, and one that Biden championed earlier in his political career. By pardoning eligible people convicted of federal marijuana charges and expunging their records of these charges, the administration will provide tangible, instant relief to an estimated 10,000 individuals — primarily Black and Latino Americans and those from other marginalized communities.
Expunging federal marijuana records would also be advancing an issue that is uniquely popular among the American public. At a time when the very concept of “bipartisanship” is almost a fantasy, expunging the records of those with past marijuana convictions is one of the very few things that can unite voters and elected officials on both sides of the aisle.
A recent national survey found that 70 percent of respondents favor expunging the criminal records of those with marijuana-related convictions. This support included majorities of Democrats (81 percent), Independents (69 percent), and Republicans (57 percent).
When Biden made these promises on the campaign trail, Americans took him at his word — his word as a Biden, as he so often frames it. These same voters are now closely watching the president to see if he truly intends to honor his commitments. So far they are not impressed.
Recently released polling data from YouGov and The Economist found that fifty-four percent of Americans think Biden has made little to no progress on cannabis decriminalization, only seven percent said that he’s made a lot of progress. The same survey revealed that a majority of Americans don’t feel very optimistic about Biden doing anything on the issue for the rest of 2022. Fifty-eight percent responded that they believe the president will make little to no progress on decriminalization; only 16 percent said they believe he’ll make either “some” or “a lot” of progress. As voters look forward to the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race, it is the actions the administration takes now that will shape their decisions.
It is time for the president to keep his promises on this broadly supported issue. He has the opportunity to do the right thing and begin to wind down our nation’s longest war: the drug war. He can use the authority of his office to provide long-overdue relief to those suffering under the burden and stigma of a marijuana conviction and help move the nation just a little bit closer to the ideals of justice that we claim to uphold — assuming he actually cares about the principles he espoused when seeking votes in 2020.
Erik Altieri is the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C.