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Pardon Me, Sir

Love Him or Hate Him, Biden Keeps Delivering Big Wins for Cannabis

Featuring headlines that cannabis aficionados from the 1980s and 1990s might have mistaken for science fiction, the US government—directed by people’s advocate and President Joe Biden—changed course recently. The President’s team issued pardons and proclamations aimed at reducing the ill effects that years of cannabis policy mismanagement had wrought on individual citizens.

Though casual and political observers alike have often placed Biden on the fence with regards to his position on marijuana possession and consumption, the President did much to clarify his intentions with executive orders pardoning those most affected by the draconian federal marijuana laws established as part of “the War on Drugs” more than 30 years ago.

Here’s a beginning to the backstory—or the end of it, depending on your perspective and experience. In 2022, Biden issued a presidential proclamation pardoning individuals convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal and Washington, D.C. statutes. Biden went on the record when that executive order was processed, telling Americans, “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.”

Biden went a few steps further in his quest for cannabis justice, using the presidential proclamation to urge state governments to take similar actions and imploring federal agencies like Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to review their classification of marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, a dangerous substance.

And now, just a year after POTUS’ stunning announcement and actions, Biden has once again stepped into the fray, expanding the scope and scale of the proclamation he issued in October of 2022.

In addition to pardoning those affected by unfair federal possession laws, the latest writ from our president also pardons those convicted of cannabis use and possession on some federal lands. According to progressive outlet NPR, the new legislation is more focused than its predecessor, as the pardons “encompass U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who committed or were convicted of simple possession, attempted simple possession or use of marijuana — regardless of whether the offender had been charged or prosecuted yet.”

This executive order clearly signals a sea change in American cannabis policy. While announcing this latest presidential order, Biden also pardoned 11 individuals who he believes are serving disproportionately long prison terms for crimes like simple possession of cannabis. Biden’s reflection on such actions shows the President has an evolving set of beliefs regarding the matter: “Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

Vice President Kamala Harris got on board the justice train, too, agreeing with Biden’s perspective on marijuana possession and archaic sentencing laws, telling the press, “As I have declared many times before, no one should be in prison simply for smoking weed.”

Looking forward, especially during an election year, can be hard for leaders and pundits alike. But the Biden Administration has unequivocally demonstrated an interest in setting years of bad legislative and judicial decisions aside in favor of a more nuanced look at how cannabis forms an intrinsic part of American culture, a phenomenon that needn’t be judged as something either criminal or unforgivable.

But instead of speculating about what the future holds, sometimes looking back at the past can give us all a reason to move forward.


Biden answers the cannabis community

Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.

Back in 1988, this reporter was just leaving college. In his final year, he made friends during an organic chemistry class, with a botanist named Mark. Mark was a peace-loving and educated man. He had spent most of his time in grad school, working out the horticultural basis for high yield, high THC, indoor grown cannabis and afterwards set up a grow room in an Airstream trailer he parked in the mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Mark had long hair and liked to listen to the Grateful Dead at high volume while working on his project. His mere appearance and musical proclivities made his rural neighbors suspicious and soon the police came knocking, to tell him to turn down the music and follow the neighborhood association compact. Based on Mark’s appearance and his disdain for their presence on his land, the case was referred to the local office of the DEA.

I went out to his house one day to visit, and he made a point of showing off the 25 plants he had nurtured and grown into high-quality specimens using 5-gallon buckets. I stayed the weekend under a large picture window in his living room. When the weekend ended, I went back to town to work on my dissertation.

That next Friday I heard the bad news: sometime after I left, the DEA raided Mark’s property with police dogs and percussive grenades. One of the grenades was propelled through the picture window, shattering it and deafening Mark in the process. After being dragged out of the house and waiting six months in a supermax prison, he was sentenced, under federal guidelines, to serve 20 years behind bars.

About five years later, he was granted a new trial, based on the methods the feds had used to arrest him for marijuana possession. Mark and his ankle monitor made their way back to Albuquerque, where he took a job as a cook at a local bagel restaurant and awaited yet another trial by fire. When we met up, he mostly told me how afraid he was. He was tired of the beatings, the lack of opportunity and the end of a promising career as a scientist.

Two weeks later, in the spring of 1997, he left the ankle monitor in a toilet stall at the restaurant and hitchhiked to the border in El Paso. I never saw him again.

If Biden’s step over the fence is to mean anything, it should signal the end of stories like this, tales where youth and education are not only thwarted by an overzealous federal government, but where tragedy follows by the bucketful.

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