In a way, the painfully slow progress toward what looks like the eventual, inevitable federal legalization of weed is a throwback to the Before Time, when one of the two major political parties wasn’t explicitly fascist and mounting a slow-rolling coup.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that he would issue pardons for all people convicted in federal courts of simple possession of cannabis. He also encouraged state governors to do the same for state-level offenses.
“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in his statement. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.
“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
Somebody should clue the administration in on the evolving nomenclature, but other than that, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on those words coming from a guy who quite recently spoke of pot being a “gateway drug” that led users to harder drugs like heroin, a notion that has been repeatedly and roundly disproven.
The announcement was, of course, welcome news for anyone interested in justice. Throwing people in jail for possessing weed has always been grossly unjust. The rollout of states legalizing pot didn’t make it any more so, really, but it did put the perversity of it into sharp relief: There are monied venture-capital bros making millions from selling pot legally while there are still many thousands of people languishing in prison or dealing with having a criminal record just for possessing it.
At the same time, though, the announcement was sort of frustrating. Biden could have explicitly called for legalization, and gained several points on his approval rating, but he stopped short of that. Instead, he declared that he’s “asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”
Studying a problem is too often how Democratic leaders do business. Whenever possible, they establish panels and issue reports that end up gathering dust while the problem in question continues to fester.
Still, Biden seemed to be saying “let’s get this done” in a way that he hadn’t before, albeit mostly by implication. He noted the ludicrousness of pot’s current legal status: Federal law, he noted, “currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine—the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.”
Eric Altieri, executive director of NORML, praised the announcement but added in a statement that “Congress should be inspired by the administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the president’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history.”
Congress is the stumbling block here because, while a fair number of Republicans are on board with legalization, many of them aren’t, often because they like to use weed as a wedge issue. It helps them cast Democrats as flighty and unserious, which especially appeals to their older constituents.
Among their number is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has stymied most efforts to reform cannabis laws. Thanks to the filibuster, it’s likely that legalization won’t happen unless the Democrats gain a supermajority in the Senate.
Both parties are screwing the pooch on this one. As Altieri’s deputy, Paul Armentano, put it in an op-ed, ignoring the issue or outright opposing reform amounts to a “gross political miscalculation.”