Cannabis legalization is quickly sweeping the nation as lawmakers move towards the end of prohibition. As of July 2021, 37 states have a medical marijuana program, and 18 states have voted to fully legalize recreational use. With such rapid change to the way the nation views cannabis, it’s no surprise that there is an urgent plea to offer pardons to non-violent cannabis offenders currently incarcerated for their crimes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis dispensaries were deemed “essential business,” further validating these pleas. Celebrities like Kevin Garnett, Drake, and Deion Sanders used their public-facing platforms to garner attention for a petition urging President Biden to grant a “full and unconditional pardon” to anyone serving time for cannabis-related offenses.
Over 150 actors, producers, athletes, and other professionals signed the letter to the President, hoping he would honor his campaign promises. So, what is the current status of U.S. cannabis pardons? Will there be any action towards releasing prisoners and expunging their records?
Biden’s Campaign Pardon Promises
During the Democratic Primary Debate in 2019, presidential hopeful Joe Biden said: “I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period. And I think everyone—anyone who has a record—should be let out of jail, their records expunged, completely zeroed out.” This was a key campaign promise that garnered Biden much praise from voters wishing to see marijuana reform at the federal level.
The former vice president favored decriminalizing marijuana possession during the Obama administration, though he has faced some criticism about his views on legal weed. A 2020 Gallup poll showed 7 out of 10 Americans favored full legalization of cannabis. However, Biden has not yet pushed the needle beyond his belief that no one should have a criminal record for marijuana use.
Biden’s evolution on drug policy may still hold promise for sweeping federal reform. Whether or not full and unconditional cannabis pardons will become a part of the Biden administration’s legacy is yet to be seen. However, several states have worked towards expungement and pardon programs to evaluate when and where appropriate to relieve persons convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
State Pardon Programs for Cannabis
The President can’t simply change the laws as they are written. However, he can absolutely determine how and when a law is enforced, and he holds the power to grant clemency for federal offenses.
Additionally, the President may issue generalized amnesty to a group of people, meaning that he could grant cannabis pardons for all marijuana-related offenses. When it comes to the state by state laws, Governors have the authority to grant pardons under state criminal law, and many have taken action.
Marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use in Colorado. Colorado took action against cannabis pardons in 2017 by sealing the records of misdemeanor marijuana possession or use offenses committed on or after December 10, 2012. As of 2021, possession convictions were added to the offense’s list for the mandatory relief process, meaning a court is urged to grant a motion to seal records. Additionally, this bill included convictions for marijuana cultivation before October 1, 2013.
In October 2020, Governor Polis pardoned all persons convicted of possession of one ounce or less throughout Colorado state.
Marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use in Illinois. In 2019, the state moved to expunge arrests and convictions for minor cannabis offenses automatically. This was defined as no more than 30 grams, no enhancement to the product, and no violence involved. Furthermore, it authorized expungement for misdemeanors and felonies for larger amounts when petitioned for by the affected individual, or as enacted by the state’s attorney.
Governor Pritzker issued cannabis pardons for 11,017 people in December 2019. A year later, he pardoned another 9,219 people. To date, he authorized the expungement of nearly 500,000 non-conviction records.
Marijuana is decriminalized in North Dakota. In 2019, the ND Pardon Advisory Board adopted a policy to allow persons convicted of marijuana possession to apply for pardon. Although limited to only the five years prior, this was a big step for the historically conservative state.
In January 2020, the governor pardoned 16 people who submitted their applications and encouraged more people to apply for pardon, estimating a staggering 175,000 people eligible for amnesty.
Marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use in Nevada. If a person convicted of a cannabis crime that is no longer illegal submits a request to the court, the record is eligible to be sealed. However, a prosecutor has the right to object but must show good cause for the objection.
In June 2020, the Nevada State Board of Pardon Commissioners (on behalf of the governor) passed a resolution to issue pardons for more than 15,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce of marijuana or less.
In 2019 Pennsylvania Board of Pardons created a program that will review the cases of non-violence cannabis offenders. An application must be submitted to be considered for pardon or expungement.
Marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use in Washington. Here, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana offense can apply to the court to vacate their conviction. This program applies to persons over 21 years of age.
Governor Inslee has issued cannabis pardons to many people who were convicted under laws that no longer apply. This is a part of the Washington Marijuana Justice Initiative.
Laws for Expungement or Sealing Cannabis Crimes
Several states have adopted some kind of policy to either offer clemency, full pardon, or expungement of records. Expungement is the total erasure of a criminal record, so that a person who had previously been arrested or convicted for marijuana offenses would no longer have to claim that arrest or conviction since there is no legal evidence of it ever having occurred. In addition to the above states’ policy for pardon and expungement, the following states have also implemented plans to seal records for cannabis offenders.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
As each state has the authority to develop its pardon programs, the conditions and terms vary widely. Time limitations, application procedures, and details surrounding the arrest or conviction all play a role in eligibility. Over 40,000 Americans are doing hard time for crimes that would no longer be illegal if committed in today’s current cannabis climate. Many of these people were simply in possession of marijuana, and no ‘crime’ was committed.
As the ACLU reports, Blacks are significantly more likely to be the victims of these arrests. In addition, thousands of men and women of color have served—and are still serving—time for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. While it’s commendable for states to take action, it’s simply not enough. Cannabis pardons at the federal level are a matter of justice that must be enacted now.