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He did so after issuing a blanket pardon for all federal convictions for simple possession of the drug.
President Biden on Thursday urged the nation’s governors to pardon offenders behind bars for possessing marijuana, part of a major push by the Democratic president to decriminalize the drug, which remains illegal under federal law.
“I’m calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses. Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said, after announcing he would pardon all federal offenders serving time for simple possession of marijuana.
Thousands of people could have trouble getting jobs, housing or educational opportunities because of prior convictions, he said.
“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many states,” Biden said. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right those wrongs.”
Democratic governors embraced Biden’s move.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf agreed with the president’s call for pardoning people with marijuana possession offenses on their record.
“I just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for people with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions,” the outgoing Democratic governor said on Twitter. “Under Pennsylvania law, I don't have unilateral pardon authority — but I'm doing everything I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, pardoned more than 2,700 people two years ago for marijuana offenses. Colorado businesses have been allowed to sell recreational marijuana legally since 2014. Democratic governors in Illinois, Nevada and Oregon have undertaken similar efforts at widespread pardons.
But Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, castigated Biden for “playing election-year politics and sacrificing our national interest to win votes.”
Biden, he said, waved “the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse and has adopted all of the talking points of the drug legalizers.”
Hutchinson said pardons should be granted individually, not through mass relief. “As governor, I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued,” Hutchinson said.
Biden’s actions also immediately became an issue in gubernatorial elections across the country.
A number of Democratic candidates said they would either expunge criminal records of marijuana possession or legalize the drug.
Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat who is challenging Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in this November’s elections, said he would legalize marijuana and expunge the records.
Charlie Crist, the Democrat trying to unseat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, said the same.
In Georgia, Stacey Abrams noted that she supported legalizing medical marijuana as a legislator and said she would support full decriminalization if she defeats Gov. Brian Kemp in a rematch this November.
In Massachusetts, Democratic nominee Maura Healy supported pardons, but her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, opposed it. Diehl called Biden’s pardons “the latest in a series of outrageous moves by President Biden to eliminate consequences for wrongful actions as he panders for votes for his party in the midterm election.”
“As drugs are flowing freely into our country through open borders, the Biden administration should not be pardoning those who break federal drug laws,” Diehl added.
While Biden’s actions have thrust marijuana to the forefront of national politics, states have been grappling with similar questions for two decades. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to make marijuana legal for adults, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association, and 37 states allow cannabis for medical purposes.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.