President Joe Biden’s move to pardon federal marijuana possession convictions is a step, but much work is left to be done. 

First off, this isn’t meant to be mopey. As Biden noted, his actions will help thousands who may have had difficulty accessing things like a good-paying job, housing, or education opportunities. His call for governors to do the same thing at scale also would have a massive impact that would see tons of people get relief. 

While nobody walked free last week thanks to Biden’s pen, the people that did see relief from simple federal possession charges are now the test subject for helping people get their lives back on track. The Congressional Cannabis Caucus had been calling for this move based on the standard Jimmy Carter set with draft offenders since Feburary of 2021. 

Some observers told L.A. Weekly they found Biden’s move similar to the strategy advocates put in front of him last summer, but with less impact. That plan would have seen additional relief for those with nonviolent federal distribution charges among others. 

That is where much of the core of the legalization debate currently sits. Why are so many people still sitting in jail for what the industry is making billions a year off of? Furthermore, how many of those convicted of possession with intent to distribute are there as a direct result of the racism study after study has shown us about the way we enforce cannabis crimes in America?

During his time at NORML, Justin Strekal organized congressional marijuana reform efforts as political director and went on to found the Better Organizing to Win Legalization PAC. He was quick to give Biden credit and called his actions the first by a president that chipped away at criminalization, as opposed to past efforts that mitigated it like the Cole Memo during the Obama administration. 

“Still, much more needs to be done,” Strekal said. “And we need to be relentless and addressing how this review is going to go because should the administration come back with a recommendation for rescheduling, that would maintain criminal penalties for adult possession without a specialized prescription. But this serves as a first viable real pathway toward removing marijuana from The Controlled Substances Act.”

Strekal also found last week’s move to be a clear sign Biden would likely sign anything Congress is able to get all the way to his desk. But with all the positives of the last week, there has been a little bit of confusion over how many people would see relief from Biden’s move. 

“It is profoundly difficult to message this in a 10-word answer,” Strekal replied. “And that’s the trouble here, right? 

Strekal explained under our Federalist system, the overwhelming majority of possession charges that have resulted in any amount of incarceration were a result of judges taking into consideration state and local criminal codes, not federal. 

“And the president doesn’t have the power to be able to pardon somebody for a state or local effects. It’s just a lack of civic literacy that we have for the layperson, to be able to fully digest what just happened with a 10-word message,” Strekal said. 

If Strekal woke up tomorrow with the power to push marijuana reform in whatever direction he chose from here, he would first want to build upon this progress of last week and expand the scope of those who are being pardoned to include those for our nonviolent distribution and immigrant populations who were deliberately excluded from this order.

Strekal offered his second move, too: “Then to have the Department of Justice issue enforcement guidelines for US attorneys to not take action against or to not enforce federal marijuana criminalization, a la an expanded Cole Memo,” Strekal said. “Because we still, to this day, have not seen action taken for enforcement guidance since Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo on Jan. 6, 2018.”

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