The White House suggested earlier this month that President Joseph Biden will not take any action on cannabis reform before the midterm elections, despite calls from fellow Democrats to use his authority to decriminalize marijuana. In a conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “I don’t have anything else to share in the upcoming weeks,” when asked about recent pleas from Democrats including US Senate candidate John Fetterman of Pennsylvania for Biden to act, according to a report from the cannabis news website Marijuana Moment.
Jean-Pierre agreed that the administration has received repeated questions about marijuana policy reform. She added that the president’s position has not changed, noting that he believes marijuana should be decriminalized under federal drug laws and that federal prisoners should be released and have their records expunged. More comprehensive legalization measures, however, should be left to the states.
“The president believes that there are too many people serving unduly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes—a disproportionate number of whom are Black and brown,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Fetterman Calls for Decriminalization
Questions on Biden’s plans to reform cannabis policy followed calls from Democrats for the administration to move on the issue. Fetterman, who leads his Republican opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, in polls tracking the race, recently called on Biden to use the power of his office to remove cannabis from the nation’s list of banned drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.
“It’s long past time that we finally decriminalize marijuana,” said Fetterman in a statement on August 29. “The president needs to use his executive authority to begin descheduling marijuana, I would love to see him do this prior to his visit to Pittsburgh. This is just common sense and Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support decriminalizing marijuana.”
When Jean-Pierre was asked about Fetterman’s open comments to the President, she said that Biden believes people should not be in prison for marijuana but would leave the choice on comprehensive marijuana policy up to states. She also referred to the president’s move earlier this year to commute the sentences of 75 people with federal convictions, many for nonviolent drug offenses.
“As I’ve said before, the president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” the White House press secretary said. “We don’t have anything to announce today at this point but just wanted to lay that out for you.”
When another reporter returned to Fetterman’s statement later in the press briefing, noting that several senators have also sought decriminalization from the chief executive, Jean-Pierre reiterated the president’s unwillingness to act on the issue.
“Again, we don’t have anything new to share or any announcement to share,” she said. “This is something that he has talked about during the campaign, and you’ve heard from him many other times talking about his drug policy focus and what’s important to him. We just don’t have anything to speak to.”
“He’s going to continue to evaluate further uses of his clemency powers,” Jean-Pierre added. “And as it relates to marijuana decriminalization, we just don’t have anything at this time.”
Group of Six Senators Also Seeks Reform
In July, a group of six US senators wrote a letter to the Biden Administration, calling on the executive branch to “use its existing authority to (i) deschedule cannabis and (ii) issue pardons to all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses,” according to a report from The Hill. The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.
In the letter, which was addressed to President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, the senators noted that they were following up on a request sent to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) last year to “use its existing authority under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) to begin the process of removing cannabis’s classification as a Schedule I drug.”
The senators noted that they had sent a letter to the DOJ in October 2021. In April of this year, they received a “half-page” response that the senators referred to as “extraordinarily disappointing.”
“The Administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes,” they wrote.
Despite the requests from within his own party, the president appears content to wait until after the midterm elections before taking a lead on cannabis policy reform, if indeed he ever does. Joseph Dowling, CEO of hemp CBD company CV Sciences, said it’s time for the delay to end.
“For far too long, our administration has ignored Americans’ overwhelming support for medical and recreational cannabis,” Dowling wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “The federal government needs to take action to decriminalize the plant, expunge non-violent criminal records associated with cannabis, and enact and enforce sensible legislation across the country so compliant operators can function without the patchwork of rules and regulations at the state level.”