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Gov. Kate Brown

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown—seen here speaking during a press conference with California Gov. Gavin Newsom on October 6, 2022 in San Francisco—has given the thumbs-up to pardoning around 45,000 simple marijuana offenders. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Oregon Governor Pardons 45,000 Marijuana Offenders in Bid to 'Right the Wrongs' of Failed Drug War

"No one deserves to be forever saddled with the impacts of a conviction for simple possession of marijuana—a crime that is no longer on the books in Oregon," outgoing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said.

Brett Wilkins

Declaring her intent to "right the wrongs of a flawed, inequitable, and outdated criminal justice system," outgoing Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Monday pardoned tens of thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana offenses.

"Oregonians should never face housing insecurity, employment barriers, and educational obstacles as a result of doing something that is now completely legal."

Brown's pardon applies to people convicted at the state level of possessing an ounce (28 grams) or less of marijuana when they were at least 21 years old in pre-2016 cases, regardless of their immigration status. According to Brown's office, approximately 45,000 people will be impacted by the pardon and more than $14 million in fines and fees will be forgiven.

"No one deserves to be forever saddled with the impacts of a conviction for simple possession of marijuana—a crime that is no longer on the books in Oregon," Brown said in a statement. "Oregonians should never face housing insecurity, employment barriers, and educational obstacles as a result of doing something that is now completely legal, and has been for years. My pardon will remove these hardships."

"While Oregonians use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Latina/o/x people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates," said Brown. "We are a state, and a nation, of second chances... For the estimated 45,000 individuals who are receiving a pardon for prior state convictions of marijuana possession, this action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions."

Brown's move came six weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden announced pardons for people convicted of federal simple marijuana offenses with one major caveat—non-U.S. citizens are ineligible. Observers noted the difference between this and Brown's all-inclusive pardons, as well as the fact that the Oregon pardons are automatic, while people seeking federal forgiveness must apply.

Oregon legalized medical-use cannabis in 1998 and recreational marijuana in 2014. In 2020, under Brown, the state became the first in the U.S. to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. That same year Oregon voters passed a ballot measure that legalized psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in "magic" mushrooms, with a deadline for implementation by January 2023.

Although Brown's policy won't free anyone currently serving prison time for marijuana offenses, drug reform advocates cheered her move, with the Drug Policy Alliance calling it "great news!"

"Today's announcement is a move towards justice for people convicted under outdated drug laws that now haven't been in place for years," the ACLU tweeted.

"Now, we need every governor to embrace their power to set people free and rectify the harms caused by the failed War on Drugs."

"Since it began, the War on Drugs has robbed hundreds of thousands of people of liberty and freedom," the group continued. "Black and Brown communities especially have been targeted, surveilled, and devastated by unjust sentencing laws that fuel mass incarceration."

"We and the ACLU of Oregon are happy to see clemency provide a second chance for thousands of people who are unjustifiably imprisoned in Oregon," ACLU added. "Now, we need every governor to embrace their power to set people free and rectify the harms caused by the failed War on Drugs."

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement that "pardoning simple possession in Oregon is absolutely necessary to repair the damage done by the failed War on Drugs. It is the proper use of the governor's clemency powers and I hope that every governor and state legislature will follow suit."

"The American people have consistently shown overwhelming support for expungement and reform of our marijuana laws," Wyden added. "It is time for Congress to step up and begin to right these wrongs at the federal level. As we approach the end of this Congress, I will continue to push for meaningful cannabis reform, and will fight to get as much done as we possibly can."

Although the U.S. House of Representatives passed marijuana decriminalization bills in 2020 and 2022, similar legislation has stalled in the Senate.

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, where is classified along with substances including heroin, LSD, and MDMA—but not cocaine, methamphetamine, or fentanyl—as a Schedule I narcotic, defined as "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

Last month, a Morning Consult/Politico survey revealed that 3 in 5 U.S. voters believe marijuana should be legal nationwide. With the passage of midterm ballot measures in Maryland and Missouri, 21 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories have now legalized recreational marijuana, while 37 states allow medical use of the plant and its derivatives.

According to a 2020 ACLU report, marijuana possession arrests make up between 40%-50% of all U.S. drug apprehensions, and "Black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in every state, including those that have legalized marijuana."


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