President Joe Biden reiterated his belief that no one should be behind bars for using cannabis, saying Sunday that he is working on legislation to help fulfill that campaign promise.
Biden, returning to Washington, D.C. following a four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, made the comments to a gaggle of reporters gathered on the White House lawn.
One reporter asked the president if he intended to honor his “campaign pledge to release all the marijuana inmates in prison.”
“I don’t think there should — I dont think anyone in pri- — anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana,” Biden said, according to a White House pool report. “We’re working on the Crime Bill now.”
The brief response represented Biden’s most extensive and explicit comments on cannabis reform since his term began last year.
But it was also something Biden has said previously, most notably on the campaign trail in 2020. While he has yet to embrace outright cannabis legalization, Biden has long spoken out against marijuana-related incarceration.
In a memorable interview on “The Breakfast Club” in the spring of 2020, Biden said that it “makes no sense for people to go to jail” for weed and explained why he supports decriminalization but not legalization.
“Because they’re trying to find out whether or not there is any impact on the use of marijuana, not in leading you to other drugs, but what it affects. Does it affect long term development of the brain and we should wait until the studies are done,” Biden said. “I think science matters.”
Comments like that––as well as Biden’s refusal to support an end to the federal prohibition––have frustrated cannabis reform advocates, as well as members of the president’s own party.
In November, three Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden urging him to “pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated.”
“Our country’s cannabis policies must be completely overhauled, but you have the power to act now: you can and should issue a blanket pardon for all non-violent federal cannabis offenses, fulfilling your promises to the American people and transforming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans,” the senators, Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley, wrote in the letter.
“As a candidate for President, you argued that, ‘We should decriminalize marijuana,’ and, ‘Everyone [with a marijuana record] should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out,’” they wrote. “The first and simplest step in the process is a blanket pardon. The Constitution grants you the authority to pardon broad classes of Americans to correct widespread injustice, as previous presidents have done.”
In May, Biden commuted 75 individuals who were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses and issued three full pardons.
There is robust support for cannabis legalization among Democrats on Capitol Hill, but that has not yet translated to policy reform.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act in April, a bill that would remove cannabis from the list of federal Controlled Substances Act.
But the bill has since stalled in the Senate, where Democratic leaders have said they intend to produce their cannabis reform bill.
In April, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said that the caucus would release its marijuana legislation at some point before the Congressional recess in August, pledging that the bill would also remove weed from the Controlled Substances Act.
But there are growing indications that the legislation in the Senate will be far more scaled back than what Schumer had promised.
Politico reported last month that Schumer “doesn’t have the votes to pass a sweeping marijuana decriminalization bill — despite repeatedly touting his support for ending federal prohibition,” and that “realization is leading Senate Democrats to look for a compromise on weed.”