37 members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden on Thursday, urging him to issue a blanket pardon to those with federal nonviolent cannabis offenses. The effort was led by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and included Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
“Today, it is clearer than ever that the American people are demanding an end to outdated cannabis laws,” say the authors.
The letter explains that 36 states, so far, have legalized medicinal cannabis, while 15 have enacted adult-use policies. It also references last year’s House of Representatives passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
In subsequent paragraphs, the letter reminds President Biden that he was once part of the Obama Administration, which granted clemency for 1,927 people convicted of various federal crimes. “Most of these individuals had been convicted on drug charges and would not have been sentenced so harshly, if at all, under today’s standards,” the authors say.
Notably, the caucus’ letter also details the harm caused to communities of color by the War on Drugs. “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates,” the authors wrote. “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010,” they say.
The letter ends with a direct plea to “automatically expunge all past marijuana convictions for use and possession” and “grant executive clemency for all non-violent cannabis offenders.”
In addition to Blumenauer, Lee, and Nadler, signatories include Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-NY), Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), as well as representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and others.
In the past, Biden has given verbal support to cannabis decriminalization and clemency efforts, saying ,“We should decriminalize marijuana. I don’t believe anybody should be going to jail for drug use.” He remains opposed to adult-use legalization.
The letter comes at a pivotal time for clemency activists. “There’s a real opportunity that the last two administrations left on the table,” says Jessica Jackson, human rights attorney and chief justice officer of Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization. Jackson says that “whole scale clemency reform” and “removing some conflicts,” like the fact that, historically, the White House’s pardon attorneys were part of the Department of Justice, which is also responsible for prosecuting the offenders that end up incarcerated in the first place.
As far as drug offenses are concerned, Jackson is hopeful. “I’ve been watching marijuana stocks [lately]…how is that you have people literally making millions off of marijuana but you still have people like John Knox or Corvain Cooper, who were incarcerated for marijuana?” she asks. “We’re definitely at a juncture where it’s a fundamental question of equity and I’m hoping that this administration will lean in and do something about it,” she says.
Earlier this week, activists released a petition and letter calling upon Americans to join in support of presidential pardons. The letter was cosigned by criminal justice reform groups including Project Mission Green/The Weldon Project, NORML, Reform Alliance, The Last Mile, CAN-DO Foundation, Buried Alive Project, and Libertas Institute, in addition to various cannabis industry associations.
Weldon Angelos, who was pardoned by Trump and had his sentence commuted by Obama for his own cannabis offense, echoes Jackson’s sentiments, saying that there are “billionaires like Boris Jordan,” Executive Chairman of the Board of multi-state operator Curaleaf, “making millions for violating the same federal statue that people like Luke, Parker Coleman, and the rapper Ralo did, who are serving decades in prison.” The “Luke” Angelos referred to is Luke Scarmazzo, whose pardon petition was denied by the Trump administration and is currently serving a 22-year sentence for operating a state-legal medical cannabis dispensary in Modesto, Calif.
“It’s inherently unjust that our federal government allows this hypocrisy—the winners are the elite and the losers are those who look like Parker Coleman and Rolo,” Angelos says.
He adds a final plea for the President: “Biden ran on this—at the debates he stated that people shouldn’t be incarcerated for marijuana. We want to hold him to what he promised. The nation has moved so far on this. Now is the time to end the War on Drugs and that starts with ending prohibition of cannabis.”