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US: Biden faces 'urgent' calls for mass pardons for cannabis convictions

Alex Woodward

The Independent

Wednesday 08 Dec 2021

Members of Congress push president to pardon all nonviolent federal pot convictions as holidays approach

Members of Congress have “urgently” requested an update from President Joe Biden on whether he plans to pardon all nonviolent federal convictions for cannabis as the holiday season approaches.

A letter from US Reps Jamaal Bowman, Earl Blumenauer and Barbara Lee follows a February request from nearly 40 members of the House of Representatives calling on the president to use his executive authority to grant mass pardons for weed-related offences.

Last month, a group of Senators also urged the president to grant such pardons for all currently and formerly incarcerated people with federal-level cannabis convictions.

Many Americans “remain behind bars due to racially discriminatory cannabis policies and continue to accrue criminal fees,” lawmakers wrote in a letter dated 7 December.

“To begin rectifying the damage done by these discriminatorily implemented policies and reunite families before the holidays, we reiterate our ask that you use your executive authority to pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated,” they wrote.

The lawmakers also demanded that all “federal criminal fines and fees be cancelled for all nonviolent cannabis offenses.”

Lawmakers pointed to the progression of comprehensive legislation to legalise or decriminalise and regulate cannabis at the federal level, which has drawn support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, but added that Mr Biden has “the power to take decisive action to begin this necessary work.”

“While this bill would make considerable progress towards overhauling American cannabis policies, you maintain the unilateral power to take transformative important action by issuing a blanket pardon of all nonviolent federal cannabis offenses,” they wrote.

Criminal justice reform advocates have suggested as many as 40,000 people are currently in jail for cannabis-related convictions, a figure that relies on nearly 20-year-old data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and inadequate federal data and complex convictions that include other offences can paint a murky picture of the state of incarceration for drug crimes.

In 2019, the federal government was involved in only a fraction of the 545,000 cannabis offences charged in the US that year, according to lawmakers; the FBI charged only 5,350 people with a top-line charge for any drug offence, not just cannabis, that year.

An overwhelming majority of the more than 350,000 Americans arrested by state and local law enforcement for weed-related crimes in 2020 were charged with simple possession, according to FBI crime reports.

The president does not have authority to intervene with state and local convictions. But proposed legislation from a bipartisan group of congressmembers led by Republican Rep Dave Joyce and Democratic Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would help states begin to expunge criminal records for such crimes.

The latest measures follow several congressional measures seizing on dramatically shifting national public opinion and bipartisan support towards ending the War on Drugs.

A recent Pew Research poll found that as many as 91 per cent of Americans support marijuana legalisation, with 60 per cent believing it should be legal to use recreationally, and 31 per cent believing it should be allowed only for medicinal use.

Cannabis remains illegal under current federal drug scheduling, though 36 states have allowed it for medical use, and 18 states and Washington DC have introduced measures to regulate its nonmedical use.




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