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Marijuana Legalization

Members of the advocacy group D.C. Marijuana Justice hold a 51-foot blow-up joint on the National Mall on April 28, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Senate Democrats Call On Biden to Pardon All Federal Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders

"Our country's cannabis policies must be completely overhauled, but you have the power to act now."

Jessica Corbett

Blasting "over a century of failed and racist cannabis policies," a trio of progressive U.S. senators on Tuesday urged President Joe Biden to use his executive authority to issue a blanket pardon for all nonviolent federal marijuana offenses.

Along with laying out how "America's cannabis policies have punished Black and Brown communities for too long," the letter from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) highlights that such laws "are increasingly out of step" with public opinion.

Recent polling from Rasmussen Reports found that nearly three times more American adults support legalizing marijuana at the national level (62%) than those who oppose it (23%).

In the absence of action by Congress to decriminalize cannabis across the United States, other elected officials have stepped up. According to the senators:

Eighteen states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use, all in the past decade. Twenty-seven states—ranging from New York to North Dakota—plus D.C. have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis. Thirty-six states, three territories, and D.C. have allowed for the medical use of cannabis. And a number of tribal governments have legalized cannabis for various purposes.

"Our country's cannabis policies must be completely overhauled, but you have the power to act now," says the letter to Biden, pointing to his statements while campaigning for president.

During a November 2019 debate, Biden said that "I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period. And I think everyone—anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged."

Pardoning all nonviolent federal cannabis offenders, regardless of whether they are incarcerated, would mean "fulfilling your promises to the American people and transforming the lives of tens of thousands," the letter says.

"Most importantly, such a pardon—combined with your leadership on an accessible expungement process to formally clear the criminal records of those affected—would mark the beginning of a reversal of decades of ineffective and discriminatory cannabis policies," the letter adds, "allowing Americans to return to their communities, find housing and jobs, and rebuild their lives without the burdens of an unjustly imposed criminal record."

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, expressed support for the letter. Noting the he's "led the charge" in his state to "free people of bullshit weed charges that have damaged their lives," the candidate vowed to do the same at a national level if elected next year.

Politico's Natalie Fertig on Wednesday noted the letter's impact could be limited, even if Biden responds with the requested pardon:

There have been some efforts on Capitol Hill to address the injustices of the War on Drugs and legalize marijuana. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in July unveiled a draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, and the House Judiciary Committee in September advanced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.

Given Democrats' narrow control of both chambers of Congress and lack of GOP support for either bill, neither is likely to reach Biden's desk. However, last week Marijuana Moment obtained a draft of the States Reform Act led by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and revealed that it "is currently being circulated among stakeholders for feedback and is therefore preliminary, but a final version is expected to be officially filed later this month."

"The GOP angle is notable, as many have raised doubts about the prospects of Congress passing the far-reaching, large-scale marijuana bills that Democrats are leading in the House and Senate," Marijuana Moment reported. "Getting Republican buy-in could prove critical to getting something over the finish line, and the Mace measure seems aimed at appealing to the states' rights and business interests of conservative colleagues on her side of the aisle while also incorporating some restorative justice and tax elements largely favored by progressives."

This post has been updated with comment from Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

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