When President Biden announced federal cannabis policy reform on Oct. 6, the industry’s operators listened closely.
Part of that federal reform is pardoning all federal offenses for simple possession of cannabis. President Biden also called on state governors to follow suit and pardon state-level offenses of simple cannabis possession.
“Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said.
There are more than 40,000 individuals incarcerated for cannabis in the U.S., according to an estimate from Last Prisoner Project, an advocacy organization focused on ending cannabis prohibition and restoring justice to those imprisoned on cannabis convictions.
While a pardon does not remove the conviction from a person’s record, it does restore civic abilities—such as the right to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury, among others.
Plant-touching cannabis operators across the industry seemingly unanimously applauded the President’s initiatives, but are adamant the momentum towards federal cannabis reform can’t stop here.
“It’s great to see President Biden’s recent announcement of pardons for those convicted of a federal crime for possessing cannabis,” says Justice Rines, chief compliance officer for Sweet Dirt, a vertically integrated cannabis operator in Maine. “This is absolutely a move in the right direction, though, like many, we’d like to see this go even further—pardoning all non-violent cannabis convictions and erasing associated criminal records which sometimes prevent convicted individuals from accessing housing, jobs and other opportunities.”
Rines adds that the Sweet Dirt team hopes to see all state governors follow Biden’s lead and perhaps even take it a step further to pardon all non-violent offenders, rather than just those convicted of simple possession.
George Archos, founder and CEO of multistate operator Verano, headquartered in Chicago, also praises the federal pardon initiatives.
Archos notes Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has also been instrumental in pardoning and expunging past cannabis convictions at the state level, issuing more than 11,000 pardons for low-level cannabis convictions in January 2020 to coincide with the state launching adult-use sales.
“Given the majority of Americans support legal cannabis—coupled with the growing number of states that are implementing medical and adult-use programs—we hope to see additional momentum in favor of pardons and expungements in the future,” Archos says.
Khari Edwards, head of corporate responsibility for multistate operator Ayr Wellness, says that while Biden’s pardons only reflect a small portion of the total number of individuals prosecuted by the federal government for cannabis-related crimes nationwide—approximately 6,500 people, a White House official told CNBC—it represents a “major step” toward the federal government amending its policies.
“Despite cannabis being legal in more than two-thirds of the country, the war on drugs continues to fail our fellow Americans—disproportionately targeting Black and brown Americans and disenfranchised communities,” Edwards says. “Pardons are crucial to remove the ‘paper handcuffs’ that follow many after convictions and inhibit their ability to secure employment, housing and healthcare.”
Edwards and the Ayr Wellness team would like to see the pardons expanded to include a broader set of stakeholders, from military members to those prosecuted for other non-violent cannabis offenses. He also believes more should be done to ensure governors take Biden’s advice to pardon state-level offenses.
“We appreciate the president calling on state governors to take action, but more needs to be done to make sure they actually follow suit,” he says. “We hope that states use Biden’s announcement as an opportunity to build off federal momentum and take steps to issue pardons within their own borders.”
Julia Jacobson, CEO of Aster Farms, says while the president’s call for federal cannabis reform is clearly politically motivated, it’s still an impactful and unprecedented move from the highest office in the land.
“Is it a political gesture? For sure,” Jacobson says of President Biden’s call for federal cannabis reform. “I’m not denying that in any way whatsoever, but if 6,000 people can have their records cleared [and] if this can get any number of people out of prison, that’s a good thing.”