Paul Armentano is Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Find out more about NORML at norml.org.
Politicians are no strangers to making campaign promises. Delivering on those promises? Well, that’s often another story.
Such is the case thus far with President Biden’s campaign pledge to reform America’s archaic and unpopular marijuana prohibition laws.
“No one should be in jail because of marijuana,” Biden insisted on the campaign trail. “As president, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
Biden also supported “the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes” and promised to “leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states.”
Yet nearly two years into his presidency, the Biden administration has rarely so much as uttered the word “marijuana” or taken any substantive action on the issue — aside from firing several White House staffers who formerly consumed cannabis.
The White House’s continued inertia is puzzling for several reasons.
For one thing, cannabis policy reform is simply good politics. In a culture of hyper-partisanship, marijuana legalization is one of the few issues that majorities of Americans of all political ideologies agree upon.
According to nationwide polling data compiled in 2021 by Quinnipiac University, 69 percent of adults — including 78 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Independents, and 62 percent of Republicans — believe that “the use of marijuana should be made legal.”
This finding should come as no surprise. In 2020, big majorities of voters in both traditionally blue states like New Jersey and traditionally red states like Montana legalized cannabis use by adults at the ballot box.
Americans’ support for legalizing medical cannabis access is even stronger, with over nine in ten adults favoring it.
Moreover, supermajorities of Americans similarly agree with the president that people with low-level marijuana convictions should have their records expunged — and that the federal government should not interfere in states that have legalized and regulated cannabis commerce among adults.
While the president can’t repeal federal marijuana prohibition on his own, Biden could still fulfill several of his campaign promises even without the help of Congress.
For instance, he could grant general amnesty to people with federal convictions for marijuana-related crimes. Dozens of members of Congress signed on to a letter last year calling for Biden to do just that and pardon “all former, federal, non-violent cannabis offenders in the United States.” To date, Biden has failed to respond.
Further, the president could direct the Department of Justice to exercise its discretion not to prosecute marijuana-related possession offenses. In October, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren drafted a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to “initiate the process to decriminalize cannabis.” Garland has not responded.
Additionally, the president could encourage the Justice Department to reissue guidance memorandums — similar to those issued under Obama, when Biden was vice president — making it clear that it will take a “hands off” approach to cannabis-related activities that are legal at the state level. (Those memos were later rescinded by Trump.)
Biden could also ask the Justice Department to expand these protections to include marijuana-related commerce among contiguous legal states, so that state-licensed businesses in neighboring states could transport products to and from one another without fear.
Finally, Biden could use the power of the bully pulpit to voice support for several of the cannabis-related bills pending in Congress — like the Marijuana, Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would empower individual states, not the federal government, to set their own marijuana policies.
Or the SAFE Banking Act, which would let banks service state-licensed marijuana businesses. The latter bill was approved by the House of Representatives this past spring with the support of 215 Democrats and 106 Republicans. A previous version of the MORE Act was approved by the House in December 2020.
Taking any of these steps would not only fulfill several of Biden’s campaign promises. It would also advance policies supported by a majority of Americans on both the political left and right.
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