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Biden Signs Equity-Focused Executive Order That Touts Marijuana Clemency Actions, Calling Criminaliz

Biden Signs Equity-Focused Executive Order That Touts Marijuana Clemency Actions, Calling Criminalization A ‘Failed Approach’

Published February 17, 2023

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President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Thursday that touts the administration’s efforts to address the “failed approach” on federal marijuana policy.

The executive order doesn’t specifically build on any administrative cannabis reforms; rather it’s focused on promoting equity within federal agencies and the White House. But the president took the opportunity to connect the issue back to his marijuana actions.

Biden issued a mass pardon for people with non-violent federal cannabis possession convictions late last year and directed a multi-agency review into marijuana scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

“My Administration has taken action to strengthen public safety, advance criminal justice reform, correct our country’s failed approach to marijuana, protect civil rights, and stand up against rising extremism and hate-fueled violence that threaten the fabric of our democracy,” the president said in the new order.

A fact sheet that the White House released on the executive order expands on the president’s cannabis record.

“The President took bold action to address our failed approach to marijuana,” it says. “The criminalization of marijuana possession has upended too many lives—for conduct that is now legal in many states.”

The purpose of the mass pardon for marijuana offenses was to lift “barriers to housing, employment, and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions.”

“The President also called on every state governor to follow his lead, as most marijuana prosecutions take place at the state and local level. And because this Administration is guided by science and evidence, he called on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to expeditiously review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

A separate new White House Domestic Policy Council report on equity efforts also includes a description of Biden’s cannabis actions.

Biden’s new executive order, “Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” directs federal agencies to produce an annual public Equity Action Plan to analyze barriers that underserved communities may face in accessing and benefitting from programs, among other steps.

The administration has routinely highlighted the cannabis clemency and review actions, often in the context of equity and racial justice. It was also mentioned in a preview ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address this month, but the president didn’t explicitly raise it in the speech.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Biden described his marijuana pardons as a reflection of his commitment to “equal justice.”

Also, at the end of last year, the president granted a half dozen additional pardons, including for a handful of people with marijuana or other drug convictions on their records.

Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice said in December that the president’s broader cannabis clemency and directive for an administrative review into cannabis scheduling have helped address the country’s “failed approach to marijuana” and represent key parts of the administration’s “remarkably productive year.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 29 congressional lawmakers from both the House and Senate sent a letter to the president in December, asking that he formally back federal marijuana legalization as the administration carries out the cannabis scheduling review.

While the lawmakers didn’t request that Biden take administrative action to unilaterally facilitate legalization, it does underscore an eagerness among supporters for the White House to play a more proactive role in advancing reform.

U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was CCed on the letter, tweeted a link to a Marijuana Moment article that discusses the president’s administrative cannabis scheduling directive.

“We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us,” Becerra, who has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform as a congressman and as California’s attorney general, said at the recent overdose prevention event. “That will guide what we do—and we hope that will guide what the federal government does.”

Following the president’s October announcement, the secretary said that the department would “work as quickly as we can” to carry out the scientific review. And he’s already discussed the issue with the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to that end.

Gupta said previously that the president’s action was “historic,” adding that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis.

Like HHS, DOJ has similarly committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.

The president also officially signed a marijuana research bill into law in December, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.

A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.


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