Baby steps: Biden’s marijuana reform is not enough

Naomi Hancock, Opinion Editor

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” President Joe Biden said during an October 6th press conference. “It’s time we right these wrongs.”

Biden’s statement follows his announcement of the largest clemency in his generation: pardons for all felons convicted of simple marijuana possession. This is a huge step forward in rethinking how our government considers cannabis, but the problem is that it has no real impact on any felons in jail.

The federal government isn’t responsible for policing drug possession unless it involves interstate offenses and regions under federal jurisdiction. As a result, there were under 800 federal marijuana possession cases in 2020.

Half of those arrests led to conviction, mainly from a guilty plea, and only 160 arrests resulted in incarcerations, with an average of six months of prison sentences. In 2021, that number decreased to 117.

While Biden’s bold actions might not have the outcome some might have imagined, it presents several opportunities.

The first is that Biden has asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, and U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, to lower the scheduling of marijuana. Drug schedules indicate a drug’s medical value and susceptibility to abuse and are a great standardized safety indicator.

Schedule I drugs have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. But drugs like cannabis rank as Schedule I, while the substances driving our drug epidemic–––meth and fentanyl–––are Schedule II, with a high risk of abuse and with some medical use.

Many states have decriminalized cannabis to avoid the penalties the outdated scheduling system brings. Certain jurisdictions, like New York City, have changed their laws so people can smoke or vape marijuana wherever smoking tobacco is allowed under the smoke-free air laws. New York state moved to legalize minor possession of marijuana for recreational use but prohibited public consumption.

In some places, legalization makes marijuana consumption and possession completely legal. States like Colorado have made it so anybody over 21 can purchase and use marijuana, similar to New York City’s laws.

Legalization and decriminalization additionally regulate substances for customer safety. Regulation helps ensure that consumers buy safe, transparent, and quality products. Like many other substances, predatory dealers may lace marijuana sold by weight to boost mass to enhance profit. Some black market sellers offer synthetic cannabinoids as dangerous “alternatives” to marijuana that have extreme effects on the body and brain.

Recognizing the risks illegal marijuana poses to consumers, states like Colorado mandated that all retail drugs undergo rigorous testing before hitting shelves.

Beyond consumer health safety, legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana decreases the incarceration rates of people of color. Despite numerous studies that show that non-white and white people consume similar levels of cannabis products, black and brown people are disproportionately affected by restrictive laws that send them to prison as much as 384% more than their white counterparts (ALCU).

Consequentially, these people of color are disadvantaged. People convicted of crimes suffer at the hands of a retributive system. Landlords are less likely to rent a house, and colleges may be hesitant to admit prospective students with records. In the case of felons, they lose the right to vote, stripping them of their necessary and fundamental right to utilize their voice.

Although studies have proven time and time again that restrictive marijuana laws are far more lenient on white people than non-white, fewer states have been willing to change their laws in recent years.

The federal government currently has little place in simple marijuana possession cases. Still, Biden’s influence as President has the power to sway governors to make their own decisions that reform marijuana laws. That’s why his move is as revolutionary as it is.

Any states that might have considered changing these laws are light years ahead of him and have made the necessary alterations long ago. What we need is a civil push for reform rather than the insistence of a President many Republicans are hesitant to collaborate with.

Biden’s pardon is a big deal, but both left and right-wing politicians have agreed that it doesn’t do enough to address the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee implemented the Marijuana Justice Initiative in 2019, which does the same thing as Biden’s reform, but on a state level.

Since then, arrest rates for marijuana-related charges have dropped significantly, but the relative disparities (black-to-white ratio of arrestees) have increased.

While that is another issue for another policy (although not for another time), it’s an example of positive growth that other states can look towards.

Joe Biden’s views on marijuana reforms are a revolutionary step forward on a federal level for America. However, the larger societal problems behind the abuse of marijuana laws prove we will need to do a lot more if we ever want to see a substantive change within our society.