President Joe Biden pardoned every body convicted of straightforward marijuana possession under federal law last week as policymakers belatedly recognize that folks shouldn’t have their lives ruined over a drug that’s now legal for recreational use in 19 states.
Having a criminal conviction imposes “useless barriers to employment, housing and academic opportunities,” Biden said in an announcement last Thursday. “And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
The White House estimates that about 6,500 people convicted under federal law will receive pardons, along with those convicted under D.C. law, which relies on federal statutes for the reason that District of Columbia just isn’t a state. Nobody is currently incarcerated in federal prison solely on easy possession charges, however the pardons could ease among the challenges individuals with criminal records face. The pardons don’t expunge one’s criminal record, but they do lift restrictions on voting rights and holding office, and will make it easier to get a job or a spot to live.
The pardons represent a positive step toward acknowledging and rectifying the harm attributable to the criminalization of cannabis. But Biden had other relief options for people facing federal marijuana charges that he didn’t take. The pardons don’t apply to anyone charged with selling or distributing weed, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of individuals with federal cannabis-related convictions. The policy also excludes immigrants who weren’t lawfully within the country on the time of the offense.
Biden doesn’t have the facility to help people convicted of marijuana-related crimes in state courts, who far outnumber those that faced federal convictions. He did ask governors to follow his lead in pardoning individuals with easy possession charges on the state level — and plenty of governors already had, particularly in states where the drug is now legal. Within the states that haven’t, most Republican governors are unlikely to heed Biden’s call.
The White House didn’t reply to a request for comment.
“I knew it wasn’t going to use to me when the words ‘easy possession’ continued to come back up. But I say, show the identical grace to the vendor as you do to the patron,” said Stephanie Shepard, the partnerships manager at Last Prisoner Project, a bunch that works to free people imprisoned for cannabis. “I used to be very completely happy for the individuals who can begin to mend these collateral consequences that they proceed to undergo while being a felon. I’m very completely happy that the conversation has began, however it’s just that — it’s a start.”
“Some people were really excited until they discovered it only applies to easy possession. A number of them were frustrated. They were very saddened that it didn’t help them.”
– Weldon Angelos, co-founder of the Weldon Project
Shepard spent nine years in federal prison after being convicted of conspiring to distribute marijuana. When she was released, she had two weeks to seek out a job or risk violating the terms of her probation. Having a felony record made it difficult to seek out employment or a spot to live — but she knew that if she failed, she risked going back to prison. For people on probation, “there’s no room for falling or tripping,” she said.
Even now, stably employed, Shepard still deals with constant anxiety stemming from her conviction and her two remaining years of supervised release. “It’s the sensation, the tenseness I get when a police officer pulls up next to me,” she said. “I’m not doing anything flawed. I’m fully licensed, fully insured. But just that knowing of what can come from it — I could be back in prison, serving the rest of my sentence. Once he passes me, then I can feel my hands loosen up, and my shoulders let down. However it’s like that each one the time.”
It’s difficult to pin down an actual variety of people who find themselves currently incarcerated or facing post-release restrictions due to weed convictions. For the tens of hundreds who don’t profit from Biden’s policy shift, “there’s mixed feelings,” said Weldon Angelos, co-founder of the Weldon Project, a company that helps individuals with cannabis convictions apply for clemency. “Some people were really excited until they discovered it only applies to easy possession. A number of them were frustrated. They were very saddened that it didn’t help them. But there are others that feel like that is a great step in the best direction.”
When Angelos was getting his start as a hip-hop music producer, he sold small amounts of weed to assist pay the bills. Eventually, he landed a record deal and put out an album with Snoop Dogg. Just as his profession was taking off, an acquaintance who had recently gotten out of prison asked Angelos to sell him weed. Unaware that the acquaintance had change into a confidential informant, Angelos sold him $300 value of cannabis on three separate occasions.
Prosecutors made the stunning decision to charge Angelos with 20 different federal crimes that carried a compulsory minimum sentence of greater than 100 years in prison if he was convicted on all counts. He was ultimately convicted on 16 of the counts, leading to a compulsory 55 years in federal prison, a sentence the George W. Bush-appointed federal judge within the case, Paul Cassell, described as “unjust and cruel and even irrational.”
After spending 13 years in prison, Angelos received clemency from President Barack Obama during Obama’s final 12 months in office. He received a full pardon in 2020 from President Donald Trump.
“I used to be lucky. A number of people don’t have rappers, famous celebrities and senators pushing for them. My judge was also one among my most vocal advocates,” Angelos said.
Had his case not generated a lot national attention, Angelos would likely still be in prison today and exempt from Biden’s pardons.
Even individuals who never went to prison for his or her cannabis convictions face life-altering consequences for the criminalization of a substance that’s now legal for hundreds of thousands of Americans. When Morgan Fox, the political director on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was in college, he was convicted on state charges of straightforward possession, which will not be eligible for a pardon by the president. The convictions prevented him from receiving federal student loans, so he needed to take out private loans as a substitute. Until he began working at nonprofits, he had a tough time finding a job outside of restaurant work.
“That was bad and annoying for me, however it’s nothing in comparison with what people without my same privilege and socioeconomic status are getting saddled with,” Fox said in an interview. “One in every of the explanations that I got into this field was because after I went to court, I saw individuals with the very same charges, the very same criminal history that I had, on the identical day, with the identical judge. And those that didn’t appear like me were getting much stiffer sentences.”
The stakes of a marijuana conviction are particularly high for immigrants excluded from Biden’s pardons. Of their case, even using weed at home in states where it’s legal could lead to “life-destroying penalties,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center said in a statement. Immigration penalties for marijuana possession include “detention in ICE facilities, with no right to a bond hearing; removal proceedings with no counsel even for detained indigent people; and mass deportations which have permanently separated a whole bunch of hundreds of families,” the group said.