As Biden waffles on weed reform, Dems press him to do, like, any-f’ing-thing

Published on July 6, 2022
Biden waves and smiles while walking in a suit
President Biden's big announcement was great news for cannabis prisoners, but not so great for full federal legalization. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It ain’t just Republicans venting their frustration with President Biden this week.

Earlier today, July 6, a group of five Democratic (and one Independent) senators sent a letter to Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, demanding that they take action—finally, and posthaste—on cannabis reform.

In the letter, the senators—Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)—emphasize the need to remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, and to issue mass pardons to non-violent offenders.

“The Administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes,” they write.

Biden has not delivered on his campaign promises 

Biden’s general inaction on drug reform breaks sharply with promises he made during the 2020 Presidential campaign: Specifically, to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, and to automatically expunge prior convictions.

“No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As President, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions,” he said during the campaign.

Nearly a year and a half into his Presidency, however, Biden doesn’t have much to show for that promise, with one exception: This April, he commuted the sentences of 78 people, including nine men and women charged with marijuana-related offenses.

That’s it. Nine marijuana prisoners. 

By comparison, President Trump granted clemency to 12 individuals with marijuana-related offenses (and two dozen additional nonviolent drug offenders) on his last day in office. President Obama pardoned more than 1,300 nonviolent drug offenders in the course of his presidency (it’s unclear how many were specifically marijuana-related).

The letter to Biden notes that roughly 40,000 people remain incarcerated for cannabis offenses. They further note that police arrest Black Americans between four and ten times more than other Americans for cannabis possession, depending on the state.

Senators are sick and tired of begging Biden to do his job

The six disgruntled senators also remark that is far from the first time they’ve contacted the Administration about its cannabis inaction.

They point out that a separate letter from November 2021—focused on mass pardons—went unanswered. 

In a separate letter from October 2021, they asked the DOJ to begin the process of descheduling cannabis. 

The senators describe the reply, which came six months later, as “extraordinarily disappointing.” In it, they report, the DOJ determined that “cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition.” This was, the pro-reform senators write, their “sole rationale for [their] lack of action.”

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As it happened, one day prior, on July 5, the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition sent a letter of their own to President Biden, Vice President Harris, and DOJ leadership expressing related concerns.

While their letter similarly addresses racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and prosecutions, it additionally encourages the Biden Administration to clarify that U.S. Attorneys should not interfere “with state-legal cannabis activity if states adopt strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”

“We believe it’s time for the federal government to develop its own core competency on cannabis regulation. The first step is to protect the most marginalized people from further harm and allow states to begin to repair the drug war’s damage without fear of further prosecution,” the coalition writes.

Will reform help Democrats flagging in the polls?

In their letter, the six senators note that two-thirds of Americans support the legalization of cannabis. That statistic begs a question of its own: Would Biden taking action on reform help Democrats, who are behind in the polls in races across the country, ahead of the November midterms?

Justin Strekal, the former NORML Political Director who now runs the BOWL PAC, believes a victory here could boost Democrats in November, but that a lack of action wouldn’t necessarily hurt their chances.

“By taking action, [President Biden] will be demonstrating in a tangible way to the core constituencies of his own political party that he’s able to get things done. It could break through the noise and be understood as credible advancements in public policy by dispirited and demoralized voters around the country,” Strekal told Leafly.

And even though the senators’ letter itself acknowledges the Biden’s Administration’s willingness to brush them off, Strekal nonetheless struck a note of optimism about its potential impact. “When we’re talking, we’re winning,” he said. 

“The mere fact that this will continue to be on the radar of the White House and administration staffers because of the political weight that these six Senators bring to the table, it’s impossible to ignore,” Strekal added.

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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