“America was founded on the principle of equal justice under law. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect this core value that makes our communities safer and stronger,” Biden said in his statement. “That is why today I am announcing additional steps I am taking to make the promise of equal justice a reality.”
This includes two actions: First, that Biden will commute the sentences of 11 people serving time for non-violent drug offenses. Second, Biden issued a proclamation that will pardon simple possession and cannabis consumption under federal and D.C. law. “Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” his statement continued. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
While Biden has received many letters from state governors petitioning him to reschedule cannabis, he included a short statement asking governors to issue similar acts of clemency.
As Biden concluded, he also made promises to continue these clemency actions to free more people from unjust cannabis sentences in the future. “I have exercised my clemency power more than any recent predecessor has at this point in their presidency,” Biden said. “And while today’s announcement marks important progress, my Administration will continue to review clemency petitions and deliver reforms that advance equal justice, address racial disparities, strengthen public safety, and enhance the wellbeing of all Americans.”
Biden’s first pardons as president were in April 2022 during “Second Chance Month,” which include the pardons of three people, including Betty Jo Bogans, Abraham W. Bolden Sr., and Dexter Eugene Jackson, commuted sentences for 75 people.
In October 2022, Biden made a historic announcement to pardon people with federal cannabis offenses. He said he would pardon those with simple cannabis possession, but also call on state governors to do the same, while also asking the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General to begin reviewing cannabis’ current schedule. Later that year in December 2022, he pardoned six more people, including Gary Parks Davis, Edward Lincoln De Coito III, Vincente Ray Flores, Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas, Charlie Byrnes, and John Dix Nock III.
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told High Times that at the time, Biden’s actions were long overdue. “For nearly two years, NORML has called upon the Administration to fulfill the President’s campaign promise to provide relief to those stigmatized with a low-level cannabis conviction,” Altieri said. “We are pleased that today President Biden is following through on this pledge and that he is also encouraging governors to take similar steps to ensure that the tens of millions of Americans with state-level convictions for past marijuana crimes can finally move forward with their lives.”
In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially called upon the DEA to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I drug to Schedule III following review. “Following the data and science, HHS has expeditiously responded to President Biden’s directive to HHS Secretary [Xavier Becerra] and provided its scheduling recommendation for marijuana to the DEA on August 29, 2023,” the letter to the DEA stated.
The DEA has a five-factor test to reconsider a drug for rescheduling, and previously cannabis has failed with passing only four of the five points. The five points include: “1.) The drug’s chemistry must be known and reproducible, 2.) There must be adequate safety studies, 3.) There must be adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy, 4.) The drug must be accepted by qualified experts, and 5.) The scientific evidence must be widely available.”
NORML was the first organization to file a petition to reschedule cannabis back in 1972. More than 10 years later in 1988, a DEA judge determined that cannabis didn’t meet the criteria for rescheduling. Later in 1990, a different judge set aside the ruling, but eventually in 1994, the original 1988 ruling was chosen in the decision. Later in 1995, NORML filed another rescheduling petition, which was denied in 2001. In 2002, another petition was filed, and the DEA denied it in 2011. That same year, a petition was filed by the governors of Rhode Island and Washington state, which was once again denied in 2016.
With a history of petition denial, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano recently spoke about the possibility of the DEA’s review outcome being different than previous attempts at rescheduling. “It will be very interesting to see how DEA responds to this recommendation, given the agency’s historic opposition to any potential change in cannabis’ categorization under federal law,” said Armentano. “Further, for decades, the agency has utilized its own five-factor criteria for assessing cannabis’ placement in the CSA—criteria that as recently as 2016, the agency claimed that cannabis failed to meet. Since the agency has final say over any rescheduling decision, it is safe to say that this process still remains far from over.”