Pot Possession Pardon Saves More Than Just Jail Time

Commentary By: Savannah Scarborough, Follow South Jersey Intern

On Thursday, October 6, President Joe Biden announced his executive action to pardon thousands of people with prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. 

President Biden will pardon all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, attempting to resolve some of the detrimental consequences that arise from these convictions. Furthermore, he urges all Governors to do the same with state offenses. Lastly, he is asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to open an administrative process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. 

Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I drug. Schedule I is the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) most dangerous classification, which includes heroin and LSD. It is considered a Schedule I drug since experts refer to it as a substance with a high potential for abuse and no medical use. 

Democratic voters have been waiting for President Biden to make this move and fulfill his promises made during his candidacy for the presidency in 2020. The illegalization of marijuana has caused tremendous difficulty for specific communities in America. Therefore, the undergoing vital actions towards pushing the legalization of marijuana could not have come at a later date and is critical to the well-being of our nation. 

Many believe there has been a failed approach to dealing with marijuana in the United States over the last decades, and numerous officials agree. During his announcement, President Biden stated, “As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.” 

Those who hold, or have held, criminal records regarding marijuana possession hold many impediments to their employment, housing, and educational opportunities. Many also have experienced displacement from jobs and public benefits. 

Data has proven that marijuana charges affect Black and Brown communities at much higher rates than white communities. The ACLU found that Black people were 3.7 times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than white people and, more specifically, 3.5 times more likely in New Jersey, according to NJ.com. 

This reality in our nation is unacceptable. According to FBI data, there were 663,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, equal to 40% of all drug arrests for that year. Subsequently, 37,000 of those arrests came from New Jersey during its last two years of illegalization (NJ.com). ACLU data has shown that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rate. However, you do not see arrests occurring on every block around town. Arrests are targeting communities of color. 

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” President Biden said in a statement. 

The illegalization of marijuana also has largely concerned and affected banking. Marijuana businesses are denied credit, small business loans, and checking accounts. This is due to banks fearing federal authorities and their ability to prosecute them for working with businesses that technically fit the federal definition of drug traffickers, said Mason Tvert, a communication adviser with the Denver-based cannabis specialty law firm (Minnesota Reformer). 

“A lot of financial institutions will look at the law and determine that it’s not worth the risk because cannabis is illegal at the federal level,” Tvert said. “They worry there is a potential risk of running afoul of federal money laundering and drug trafficking charges.” 

Furthermore, enforcement of marijuana laws wastes $3,613,969,972 yearly (ACLU). For our country, marijuana regulations and laws lead to a loss of money. Additionally, the market size value of the marijuana industry in 2022 is worth $16.7 billion and expects to reach $102.2 billion by the end of 2030 (Grand View Search). With the legalization of recreational marijuana use in all 50 states, imagine what the industry could be worth. 

After a general vote in 2020, marijuana is now legal in New Jersey. However, companies can still fire their employees for being impaired while on the job (WHYY, PBS.org). Companies can screen employees for marijuana use, but they are not allowed to fire people just because they failed a drug test (WHYY, PBS.org). Instead, employers must also provide substantiated evidence of possible impairment by completing a specific report (WHYY, PBS.org, NPR). 

New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York applauded President Biden’s move in a statement that called for passage of a bill to remove the substance from the list of Schedule I controlled substances and expunge the records of anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime (New Jersey Monitor). 

Many Republicans are much less favorable to President Biden’s move. “In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders—many of whom pled down from more serious charges,” Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, said on Twitter. 

Despite what many people think, many health benefits come from using marijuana. Marijuana can treat chronic pain, reduce alcoholism and drug addiction, reduce depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety, alleviate negative symptoms of cancer treatments, and reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy (Medical News Today). 

However, smoking marijuana can also trigger mental health problems like bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, depression, psychosis, and an increased risk of testicular cancer and respiratory disease (Medical News Today). 

Currently, the recreational use of marijuana is legal in 19 states, including the District of Columbia (New Jersey Monitor). However, in 38 states, marijuana is allowed for medical purposes only (New Jersey Monitor). But, there are several states where marijuana use is illegal in all forms, recreational or medical (New Jersey Monitor).

Unless President Biden takes further, more aggressive action or Congress changes federal marijuana laws, marijuana will likely continue as a classified Schedule I drug, and many states will continue to hold a negative view over the legalization of it. 

“The process will take some time, because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific… and medical information that’s available,” the senior administration official said, adding that while Biden hasn’t set a timeline he wants the review to be “expeditious.” 

President Biden also made it abundantly clear in his statement that he believes it is still essential for trafficking, marketing, and underage sales limitations to stay in place and be a point of focus in America. 

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