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Lawmaker letter seeks White House pot decriminalization 

As pot legalization advocates whipsaw between pessimism and optimism over the new administration and Democrats’ unexpected control of both houses of Congress, some legislators are pushing for smaller reforms that, in the end, might help make federally legal weed a reality.

The latest such effort comes in the form of a letter sent last month by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and her colleague Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to President Biden, urging him to grant pardons to all Americans with cannabis convictions on their records.

Lee, who represents a chunk of the East Bay from Albany down through San Leandro, co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus with Blumenaur. The letter, co-signed by 35 other members of Congress (all Democrats), begins: “Today, it is clearer than ever that the American people are demanding an end to outdated cannabis laws.”

The letter doesn’t ask Biden to endorse the MORE Act, which passed the House last year and, if approved by the Senate and signed by the president, would legalize weed at the federal level. What it does do, however, is challenge Biden to live up to his word: he has called for the expungement of criminal records, along with decriminalization—a classification that falls short of full legalization.

Biden has multiple options to back up his stance. He could, for instance, demure by saying he’d prefer criminal records be expunged by passing a law through Congress. But Lee and Blumenaur’s request puts him on the spot.

Such a move would be unusual, but not unprecedented.

Presidents Ford and Carter both granted clemency to people who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, and each of the past five presidents issued individual pardons to federal cannabis offenders—a fact that wasn’t lost on Lee and Blumenaur. A more generalized pardon, they wrote, would “begin the process of ‘winning the peace’ in the War on Drugs by ending it and working to make whole those who have been harmed.”

But if Biden does grant clemency, that would highlight the sheer ludicrousness of the possession and sale of pot still being a major felony at the federal level, even as most states have a medical-pot program and 15 have fully legalized weed for adult use.

After a political lifetime as a staunch drug warrior, he even declared, in recent years, that he didn’t favor full legalization, and he referred to pot as a “gateway drug.” That notion—that smoking weed reliably leads people to take harder drugs—has been roundly debunked. But Biden has proved to be capable of changing his mind, and, though many pot advocates are still nervous about him, the odds are good he would sign the MORE Act if it were to pass Congress.

The question now is, will he support the MORE Act before it’s voted on?

That’s far less clear, especially given the news that came down on Monday that Vice President Kamala Harris’s stance on the issue might yet again be in doubt.

An unnamed source told Bloomberg News that, although Harris had campaigned on legalizing weed during the presidential primary—after years of being a pretty ardent drug warrior herself—her position is now “the same as Biden’s.” That is: pro-expungement and pro-decriminalization, but not in favor of legalization. The office of the vice president did not respond to a request for clarification.

The recent letter from the House members is meant, in part, to force the administration to take a stand, and also to help pave the way for legalization, because granting clemency for everybody who has been convicted of a non-violent, federal cannabis offense would make it pretty silly to keep the law they broke in place. It would also make arresting people on pot charges equally silly. 

“[U]ntil the day that Congress sends you a marijuana reform bill to sign,” they wrote to Biden, “you have a unique ability to lead on criminal justice reform and provide immediate relief to thousands of Americans.”

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