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Decriminalize & Deschedule: Advocates Welcome Biden Pardons But Demand Deeper Reform of Cannabis Laws

StoryOctober 07, 2022
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President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he is pardoning everyone convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, and said the classification of the drug would undergo review. The move will remove many legal barriers for thousands of people to gain jobs, housing, college admission and federal benefits, and fulfills a campaign pledge made by Biden. However, the pardons will only affect about 6,500 people, as the vast majority of drug charges are at the state level and are disproportionately affecting communities of color. “We are demanding that the president actually deschedule and decriminalize cannabis,” says Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden has announced he’ll pardon anyone convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, in a major step towards the decriminalization of cannabis. Biden announced his plan in a video posted on social media.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As I said when I ran for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. It’s already legal in many states. And criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, to housing, to educational opportunities. And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and Brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.

So, today, I’m taking taking three steps to end this failed approach.

First, I’m announcing a pardon for all prior federal offenses for the simple possession of marijuana. There are thousands of people who are convicted for marijuana possession who may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result of that conviction. My pardon will remove this burden on them.

Second, I’m calling on all governors to do the same for state marijuana possession offenses.

Third, the federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, the same as heroin and LSD, and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense. So I’m asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to initiate a process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

Even as federal and local regulations of marijuana change, important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales should stay in place.

Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Biden calls on governors to also pardon people found guilty of marijuana charges at the state level, we’re joined now by Kassandra Frederique. She is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Thanks for being with us. Were you surprised, Kassandra, by this announcement? So often when you come to a point like this, the pardoning of all people convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level, it is grassroots organizations and alliances that have pushed something like this forward.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Amy. I’m really happy to be here.

I think we were open to the president’s announcement. For a really long time, groups on the ground have been pushing for us to get to a place where we’re descheduling, decriminalizing, reinvesting in communities and really leaving cannabis prohibition behind. And so, the president’s announcement yesterday was an opening gesture to a much broader conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we talk about that broader conversation, explain what it means. He’s talking about federal charges. Anyone convicted of federal charges of pot possession are pardoned. So, who does this include, and who doesn’t it include?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: So, it’s important to contextualize that these pardons actually remove legal barriers to things like employment, housing, licensing, public benefits. And this is an arena of around 6,500 people. Most people that are currently in the federal system are not there for simple possession. But this is going to be really helpful for those 6,500 people. It will also cover those in the District of Columbia, who are under this federal jurisdiction, that they will also have the opportunity to get their offenses — their code offenses pardoned, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking about people who are in prison currently, is that right? And also, of course, people who are not in prison but have this record. How many, do you know, will be freed from prison immediately?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: So, what we have found is that there are not that many people, if any people, that are currently in the federal system currently solely for simple possession. What we know is that a majority of the people that are going to be impacted by this pardon are people who have these convictions who are currently navigating the really devastating collateral consequences associated with a federal conviction on simple possession. Remember that this is about removing legal barriers, but these people still have convictions on their records.

And the other thing that’s important is that this doesn’t — that noncitizens were excluded from this, which is really unfortunate, because people who are noncitizens, cannabis is one of the main reasons why people are detained or deported. So, as I said, this is an opening gesture for what we are pushing for to be a broader conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me elaborate on that further with a quote from Jane Shim, the senior policy attorney for the Immigrant Defense Project. Her statement reads in part, “it is extremely disappointing that the Administration went out of its way to exclude undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, even immigrants who were pardoned may remain at risk of detention and deportation because of a marijuana offense, thanks to our punitive immigration laws.” Kassandra?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: That’s exactly right. And, you know, Drug Policy Alliance has learned an incredible amount of the intricacies between immigration policy and drug policy over the last decade. And in fact, most people don’t realize that our first drug laws were xenophobic immigration policies. And so, this is why Drug Policy Alliance is working with our groups around the country to really figure out how do we continue to push where the president is right now, to a broader conversation that’s actually going to bring the necessary material condition changes that our community needs.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what’s that broader conversation? What are you actually demanding?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: So, we are demanding that the president actually deschedule and decriminalize cannabis — cannabis should not be in the Controlled Substance Act — and that we actually need a situation where we are removing the legal barriers that people are facing around employment, licensing, housing benefits and immigration, right?

Also, this is time for the president to really focus with the Congress to actually push forward federal legislation. The federal legislation that’s been introduced, like the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, includes this decriminalization, that includes resentencing, expungement, and the federal government funding the states to do expungement, as well.

And so, we think that this is super critical, and we also really want people to understand that we are excited to have this conversation but are very clear about what we know is necessary. We’ve seen cannabis regulation happening across the country, and we know what works and what’s best for communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the MORE Act, which stands for Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, passed twice by the House?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: Yeah. So, this is the first federal cannabis regulation bill that passed in Congress in the House of Representatives. It’s passed twice. The current iteration of this bill is in the Senate, and that’s the Cannabis Administration Opportunity Act. And those things kind of marry a lot of the same things that really work to do the things that I’ve been talking about — descheduling, decriminalizing, providing relief to communities most impacted, as well as reinvesting in communities from the tax revenues that we’re getting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now Biden is saying the governors have to do the same. How many states? We’re talking recreational marijuana legal in 19 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. Where do you see movement there? And who is most impacted by these laws?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: So, what we know is that cannabis laws have impacted millions of people around the country, and we also know that it’s disproportionately impacting communities of color, right? And so, when we are looking at these pardons that are really trying to remove legal barriers at the federal level, it’s mostly impacting — there’s a disproportionate amount of people that are communities of color. But what we also know is — and why I keep coming back to the work that Congress needs to do — is that even if states create pardons, there are still people that are still going to be impacted because the federal barriers have not been changed, right?

So, governors are — you know, with governors, we really want them to expeditiously move these pardons forward. But we recognize that a lot of that is going to be impacting communities of color, but we really need the federal government to remove the barriers now. If the president understands that cannabis legalization or cannabis regulation or cannabis prohibition has created barriers for people getting access to housing, employment, housing benefits, and really — and, for us, we’re including the conversation of deportation and detention — let’s not only have the conversation of the descheduling of cannabis, but also let’s have the conversation of changing the administrative barriers that are impeding people from being full participants in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kassandra Frederique, clearly, we have a lot more to talk about, but we have no more time today, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit fighting to end the so-called war on drugs.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for two full-time jobs: an associate digital editor and a people and culture manager. You can go to democracynow.org to learn more and apply. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank so much for joining us.

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