Senators Push Biden Again on Cannabis Pardons and Decriminalization

After a “disappointing” response from the Department of Justice to prior requests, six U.S. Senators are renewing their call for cannabis reform.

On Wednesday, Sens. and Bernie Sanders, joined by Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ed Markey, and Ron Wyden, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden to ask that his administration “deschedule cannabis” and “issue pardons to all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses.”

The new letter references two prior letters. The first, sent by Warren and in October 2021 to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asked that he decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. The second, sent by Warren, Markey, and Jeff Merkley in November 2021 to Biden, asked that he issue pardons to “all individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated.”

The Senators never received a reply to the second letter, and they found the DOJ’s response this April to the first letter “extraordinarily disappointing,” they write in the new letter, which is also addressed to Garland and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

The DOJ’s response pointed to the fact that the HHS has said that “cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition.” 

However, the Senators write, “this assertion ignores the ability of the DOJ and Drug Enforcement Administration to begin the descsheduling [sic] process and act independently of an HHS determination.” They go on to point to the recognition of the therapeutic potential of cannabis both in the U.S. and globally. As Cannabis Wire reported, the World Health Organization has recognized cannabis as medicine in recent years.

On the note of pardons, the Senators write that, during his campaign, “President Biden committed to decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions,” adding that “it is estimated that over 40,000 individuals are still incarcerated for cannabis related offenses.” 

This April, in his first use of clemency power since taking office, Biden pardoned three people and commuted the sentences of another 75. Among this list of 78, nine had cannabis offenses. 

While the Senators “commend” this action, they wrote, “much more has to be done to address the racist and harmful legacy of cannabis policies on Black and Brown communities.”

Biden’s administration received another letter this week, this one from cannabis regulators across the country. 

The letter from the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition calls on the DOJ “to issue a memorandum to all U.S. Attorneys advising against the prosecution of crimes related to cannabis when those activities accord with relevant state law and a reasonable set of regulatory principles intended to promote safety and fairness.” 

A similar memo was in place until former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded it in 2018. It more or less promised that the DOJ would take a hands-off approach to legal cannabis so long as certain priorities were met, like preventing youth use and diversion. 

“We share a deep conviction that action from the federal government on cannabis is overdue,” the Coalition letter read. “We propose a relatively simple step that your administration can take to both respect states that do not want legal marijuana and protect law-abiding Americans in states that do.” 

More Senators Push Biden Again on Cannabis Pardons and Decriminalization