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Biden's marijuana pardons still don't undo racist drug-arrest disparities

For approximately 6,500 people, Biden pardoning federal marijuana possession convictions will be life-changing.
Image: President Joe Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 20, 2022.
President Joe Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 20, 2022.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

On Thursday, a month before a pivotal midterm election, President Joe Biden delivered on a campaign promise by pardoning thousands of people for the federal crime of simple marijuana possession, saying “too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana.” I’ve never smoked weed, and, frankly, find the smell repulsive, but I welcome any policy that seeks to undo the harms of the war on drugs and, unlike the narratives my generation was given about drug use, any policy that is based in reality.

I was 11 when a police officer with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program told my classroom that marijuana was a dangerous gateway drug.

I was 11 when a police officer with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program told my classroom what a dime bag was and warned us that marijuana was a dangerous gateway drug. Instilling fear in young people was a key element of the “Just Say No” approach. Turns out the data doesn’t back up the officer’s claims that marijuana use leads to messing with heroin. Nor was the ubiquitous program effective at preventing drug use. All it can really claim is that it made grown-ups back then feel like they were stern with the kids about drugs.

The ineffectiveness of the DARE program is a microcosm of how the broader war on drugs failed to reduce drug use. The war on drugs made false equivalencies about marijuana and stronger drugs while demonizing entire generations of Black and brown people who bought or sold marijuana.

Despite equal rates of marijuana use across demographics, Black people are consistently arrested three to four times more than white people. President Biden, deeply familiar with the failures of the 1980’s drug policies from his own time as a Senate policymaker, took a stab at undoing the harm this week with his announced pardon.

Taking the position of an elder who actually gets the younger generation, Biden’s official statement bluntly states that “it makes no sense” to put marijuana in the same drug class as heroin or in a class higher than fentanyl, the drugs actually driving the current epidemic of abuse and overdoses. For 6,500 people, Biden’s pardon will be life-changing and may allow Americans in some states to regain the right to vote. The pardons will also remove the stigma of a drug conviction when they apply for jobs and housing. An October 2021 working paper published by two economists and an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that, contrary to what we were told in the 1980s about the effects of the drug, marijuana legalization has resulted in significant reductions in both violent and property crime, especially in states along our border with Mexico.

The Biden administration is hardly blazing a trail on marijuana reform. Nearly 40 states have legalized marijuana use in some form, and localities such as Brooklyn and Baltimore have stopped making possession of marijuana arrests. The Biden White House is taking its turn at marijuana reform just before the midterms because it is popular policy. Public opinion has trended in favor of marijuana legalization as Gen X and millennials make up a greater share of the population. According to an April 2021 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90% of Americans either say marijuana should be legal for medical use or legal for medical and recreational use. As for Americans under 30, 70% think marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use.

But the marijuana inequity challenge won’t be solved by federal pardons alone. In one year, only 92 people were sentenced in federal prison for marijuana possession. The vast majority of drug-related federal prosecutions are for sale or trafficking, which has yet to be addressed. Most people arrested for pot aren’t taken in by federal agents, so policing and economic disparities remain highly localized issues. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, local police make more arrests for marijuana “than for all other violent crimes combined.” At the county level, in this era of booming marijuana businesses, Black people are still nearly 50 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana-related crime.

Changing the federal classification of marijuana, a cumbersome multiagency process Biden directed federal agencies to “expeditiously review,” would have a massive ripple effect across the business sector. Removing the convoluted navigation of federal vs. state laws would be a boon to federal job seekers, who currently face the absurd choice between committing a crime by lying on security forms about smoking weed or losing the chance at being hired by admitting to doing something that is legal where they live but against federal rules. The domestic cannabis industry itself raked in $25 billion last year, and federal reforms would double, if not triple these numbers. A coherent regulatory system would also encourage foreign investment in our cannabis market.

While Black and brown weed entrepreneurs serve prison sentences, a new crew of white cannabis connoisseurs are capitalizing.

Here is the buzzkill about Biden’s limited federal action and review period. It promises a future where marijuana use is normalized and regulated, where weed is a commodity bought and sold like any other. But there is no suggestion of leveling the playing field by providing restitution for time spent in prison or helping minority communities grow legitimate cannabis businesses. Democrats in the Senate unveiled their wholesale marijuana reform approach in July, but the bill is on a long list behind other progressive priorities, such as voting rights and abortion protections.

Presidential pardons don’t correct the racial inequity of drug enforcement policy, or the emerging imbalance where 81% of legal marijuana business owners are white. While the original Black and brown weed entrepreneurs still serve prison sentences and still have criminal records, a new crew of white cannabis connoisseurs are capitalizing by doing the same thing.

Fifty years after the war on drugs started, we have an opportunity to course-correct, right before a pivotal election, against a similar backdrop of tough-on-crime talk. It’s not lost on me that while most of my peers are comfortable with marijuana use, I’ve chosen to not even try the substance. Yet even I can argue for a new orientation around marijuana policy, one that’s rooted in personal choice and equity, not the whipped-up fears of a bygone era.