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Biden Asked Governors To Pardon Low-Level Marijuana Offenders. Many Already Have.


President Joe Biden pardoned domestic victims of the War on Drugs with federal easy marijuana possession convictions on Thursday. In doing so, he added that state governors should do similar to most marijuana possession arrests and convictions occur beyond the reach of the president’s pardon power in state and native jurisdictions.

“Just as nobody needs to be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, nobody needs to be in an area jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden tweeted.

Few sitting governors responded to Biden’s request. That might be because most states with sitting Democratic Party governors – those more than likely to follow the president’s lead – have already got some legal process to expunge, seal or reduce not less than some, if not all, of the low-level marijuana convictions of their states. Fifteen of the 22 states held by Democrats have such policies in place, and plenty of of those governors praised Biden’s motion while noting they’d already done the identical.

Thanks to @POTUS for taking this long overdue motion.

In 2019, I signed the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act and today we now have pardoned or expunged nearly 800,000 low-level convictions. https://t.co/off6LLzRU9

— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) October 6, 2022

Within the remaining seven states of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which wouldn’t have a pardon process in place, a handful of governor’s offices responded to inquiries from HuffPost following Biden’s announcement.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) “agrees that nobody needs to be in jail just because of possession of marijuana,” Scottie Ellis, his deputy communications director, said over email. But, she added, “The White House had not alerted and has not briefed our office on exactly what his pardons may require and the precise details of what they’ll and won’t cover.”

Beshear established a Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee in April to review options for any executive motion he could take toward legalizing medical marijuana within the state.

He’s now seeking to review the main points of Biden’s pardons and whether something similar could apply in Kentucky “in his larger evaluation on medical cannabis,” Ellis said. She added that the “overwhelming majority” of Kentuckians favor legal, medical marijuana; a recent poll put the number at 90%.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) established a Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice in 2020 that later really helpful decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Biden’s actions “are in line” with those recommendations, Cooper said in a press release provided to HuffPost.

“I even have also asked our lawyers to look at North Carolina law regarding easy possession of marijuana convictions and pardons to find out if there may be an motion we will and may take,” Cooper continued within the statement.

“I feel he did the suitable thing,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said at a press conference on Friday. “We’ve looked back at our structure and laws in Louisiana, and in contrast to many states, I wouldn’t have plenary authority to grant a pardon.”

The legislature might have to pass a law or amend the structure to enable Edwards to issue pardons just like Biden’s.

“We’re going to be taking a look at it going forward,” he added. “And dealing obviously with members of the legislature to take their temperature and see if there’s an appetite for moving on this direction.”

And in Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf touted the policy he and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s running for the state’s open Senate seat, announced on Sept. 1 to issue pardons for certain minor, non-violent marijuana-related convictions at the subsequent meeting of the Board of Pardons in October.

“I just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for individuals with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions,” Wolf tweeted following Biden’s announcement. “Under Pennsylvania law, I don’t have unilateral pardon authority — but I’m doing every part I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”

At the very least one Republican governor, Recent Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, responded to Biden’s call by saying that he’s reviewing Biden’s actions. Marijuana stays illegal in Recent Hampshire, however the state has decriminalized the possession of small amounts, expanded medical marijuana and created a process to permit those convicted of marijuana offenses to appeal to get those convictions expunged.

Protestors called on President Joe Biden to deschedule marijuana and pardon and expunge those convicted on the federal level in April. He began that process on Oct. 6.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

There are currently 20 states which have already enacted policies that enable those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses to expunge, seal or reduce them. These include 16 states where marijuana is legal and one other 4 states where it’s decriminalized.

The 16 states where marijuana is legal and a strategy of expungement – automatic or on a person basis – exists include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Recent Jersey, Recent Mexico, Nevada, Recent York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. Twelve of those states have Democratic governors, while 4 have Republicans.

There are only two states – Alaska and Maine – where marijuana is legal, but there appears to be no process for the expungement of past convictions. Alaska has a Republican governor, while Maine’s is Democratic.

One other 4 states where possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized now allow a process to expunge and seal convictions for possession crimes since decriminalized. These are Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota and Recent Hampshire. All but Recent Hampshire have Democratic governors.

North Dakota also allows those convicted of low-level marijuana possession offenses to petition the governor for a pardon.

Moreover, voters in Arkansas, Maryland and Missouri are voting in November on initiatives that will legalize marijuana and expunge certain prior convictions. Republicans currently govern these states, but Maryland is sort of certain to elect Democrat Wes Moore as governor in November.

“Maryland voters have the chance to legalize recreational marijuana on the ballot this November,” Moore tweeted Thursday. “As governor, I’ll fight to expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession.”

Voters in North and South Dakota may also be deciding on ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana of their respective states, but neither initiative provides a process for marijuana conviction expungement.

Like in Pennsylvania, not all state governors have the unilateral pardon power Biden does as president. That is the case in Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Carolina and Utah.

In Minnesota, for instance, pardons should be unilaterally approved by the Board of Pardons, which incorporates the governor, the attorney general and the chief justice of the state supreme court. Or, in Alabama, the method runs through an independent parole board appointed by the governor.

As a legislator, I supported legalizing medical marijuana. As governor, I’ll decriminalize marijuana possession within the state of Georgia and support prioritizing the expungement of marijuana possession records.

— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) October 6, 2022

Other states require pardons issued by the governor to be reviewed and approved by parole boards. This limits the flexibility of governors to follow Biden’s suggestion.

While it could be difficult for the few Democratic governors whose states don’t have a process in place to expunge marijuana convictions to act, the problem immediately became a campaign promise of Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

“As governor, I’ll decriminalize marijuana possession within the state of Georgia and support prioritizing the expungement of marijuana possession records,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams tweeted.

“Once I’m governor, we’ll finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession,” former congressman and Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana here in SC and expunge the records of individuals with low-level marijuana convictions,” South Carolina Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham, a former congressman, tweeted. “And I’m the one person running for governor who will.”

The legalization of marijuana stays broadly popular, with most polls showing two-thirds in support.

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