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President Biden announced last week that he is pardoning thousands of people with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden wrote in a statement announcing the decision.
The president urged the governors of all 50 states to follow his lead and pardon those convicted of possession at the state level, where the vast majority of marijuana convictions occur. He also instructed his administration to begin a review of whether marijuana should be reclassified under federal law. The drug is currently listed as a Schedule I drug — a category for substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — alongside drugs like heroin and LSD.
As policy, Biden’s pardons represent a relatively modest change. It will only apply to about 6,500 people, none of whom are currently in prison on possession charges. But they serve as a marker of the extraordinary evolution that the country (and Biden himself) has undergone when it comes to marijuana.
While serving in the Senate, Biden was a key architect of a series of laws that created harsh sentences for drug offenses. In 2020, however, he called for marijuana possession to be decriminalized nationwide — a step short of legalization that would mean anyone found possessing marijuana would face no criminal penalties.
Until 10 years ago, recreational marijuana use was banned nationwide. Today, it’s legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C. Five more states could be added to the list next month if voters in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota approve legalization measures on the midterm ballots in their states. A total of 37 states allow marijuana use for medical purposes.
Why there’s debate
Poll after poll shows that a strong majority of voters, including about half of Republicans, favor marijuana legalization. But there’s debate over how much of a boost Democrats will actually get from being on the right side of public opinion as they attempt to maintain control of Congress.
Some political analysts say the issue of marijuana legalization could be exactly what Democrats need to tip the scales in tight races across the country. They point out that support for legalization is especially strong among young voters and people of color, two core Democratic constituencies that the party has struggled to motivate since they helped Biden win the presidency in 2020. Others say keeping marijuana policy at the center of debate will allow Democratic candidates to portray the Republican opponents, who largely oppose any steps toward legalization, as out of touch and behind the times.
But skeptics say that, while the majority of the public may agree with Democrats on marijuana, the issue just isn’t very important to most voters when compared to things like the economy, crime and abortion. Some pundits on the left argue that Biden’s modest actions aren’t enough to change the minds of progressive voters who are looking for major change on a whole host of issues. Others believe the move could give the GOP opportunity to paint Democrats as soft on crime.
Any steps to decriminalize or legalize marijuana nationwide would have to come from Congress. The House passed a decriminalization bill last year, but the odds of that bill or anything similar becoming law in the near future are slim unless Democrats can garner enough votes to reform the Senate filibuster.
Pot policy may convince reluctant young voters to turn out for Democrats
“For a president who has been criticized for being too beholden to the most conservative members of his party, his recent pivot to issues that are enormously popular with younger and more left-leaning Democrats has the potential to be a major animator in the final weeks before November.” — Scott Bixby and Ursula Perano, The Daily Beast
Popularity of an issue doesn’t necessarily translate to votes
“Sixteen percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—say they smoke marijuana. The key untested question is how much their use decides their vote, or convinces them to vote, in a way that decides elections. It’s not a question that many political forecasters and pundits emphasize. Weed is something that many people don’t take seriously.” — Alex Halperin, Slate
The impact will be small, but could prove important in tight races
“I think this is an issue that the White House is doing because they wanna excite the base of the parties, particularly younger voters that are following this issue very closely. … So, this is something that could very well excite them and help Democrats on the margins.” — Josh Kraushaar, Axios
The GOP could turn marijuana politics against Democrats
“President Joe Biden is taking a historic step that is likely to be widely popular and could energize core Democratic constituencies just over a month from the midterm elections. … But it also risks playing into searing Republican attacks branding Democrats as soft on crime, which are rocking multiple key contests ahead of elections that could hand control of the Senate and the House of Representatives to the GOP.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN
The issue forces Republican candidates to defend deeply unpopular positions
“Supporting legalization, and the expungement of the records of people with marijuana convictions, is not just a smart move by any rational criminal justice measure. It’s a smart political move. … And that’s especially the case for Democrats running against Republicans who have expressed opposition to legalization as part of a broader attack on progressive priorities.” — John Nichols, The Nation
Biden’s pardons will resonate with voters more than most complex legislation does
“This proclamation says more to the average voter about how government intersects with their daily lives than most of the inside-the-Beltway, three-dimensional chess moves of the past two years.” — Gabrielle Gurley, The American Prospect
Modest reforms may not be enough to change disappointed voters’ minds
“If young voters are unhappy with the Democratic president but still dislike Republicans, will they just stay home, as their counterparts did in 2010 and 2014? Obviously Democrats want to keep that from happening, but it’s not 100 percent clear that young voters’ disdain for Uncle Joe is a problem they can solve.” — Ed Kilgore, New York
Biden’s intervention could make pot much more of a partisan issue than it currently is
“Presidential involvement on any issue tends to polarize public opinion. Since Democrats are already almost all in favor of legalization, there is nothing to be gained on that side. At the same time, Republican voters who currently support marijuana legalization may flip to opposing it once it’s identified with a Democratic president.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg
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