Racial Equity in Marijuana Pardons Requires State Action

In pardoning Americans convicted by the federal government of possession of marijuana, President Joe Biden said he was aiming to partially fix decades of anti-drug laws that have disproportionately harmed black and Latino communities.

While Biden’s executive action will benefit thousands of people by making it easier for them to find housing, get a job or apply to college, it does nothing to help the hundreds of thousands of ‘Americans, mostly black and Hispanic, still burdened with state marijuana convictions. related offenses, not to mention the millions of other drug-related offenses on their records.

Supporters of overhauling national drug laws hope that Biden’s pardons will cause state lawmakers to pardon and erase minor drug offenses from people’s records. After all, they say, dozens of states have already decriminalized cannabis and legalized it for a multi-billion dollar recreational and medicinal industry that is mostly white-owned.

“We know this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people who are suffering the effects of (past) marijuana prohibition,” said Maritza Perez, director of federal affairs at Drug. Policy Alliance, a non-profit organization that campaigns for decriminalization. and safe drug use policies.

The decades-long “War on Drugs,” a sweeping federal legislative agenda that Biden championed as a U.S. senator and mirrored by state lawmakers, has caused mass criminalization and a population explosion. prison. It is estimated that tens of millions of people have been the subject of a marijuana-related arrest since 1965, the vast majority of them resulting from law enforcement by local police and state prosecutors. State.

But as many law enforcement officials like to point out, the majority of people serving long sentences for marijuana-related offenses have been convicted of more serious charges than possession, such as number of weapons or the intention to sell or traffic the drug to a greater number. ladder. These factors are generally how a case moves in federal territory versus state prosecution.

Yet advocates of reform counter that many of them are not violent drug lords.

A 2021 Associated Press study of federal and state incarceration data showed that between 1975 and 2019, the US prison population fell from 240,593 to 1.43 million people. Of these, about 1 in 5 were incarcerated with a drug offense listed as their most serious crime.

The introduction of tougher penalties for crack cocaine, marijuana and other drugs in the 1990s helped triple incarceration rates for blacks and Hispanics by the year 2000. The incarceration rate for White only doubled.

And despite the state legalizing or decriminalizing possession up to certain amounts, local law enforcement continues to make more arrests for possession of drugs, including marijuana, than for any other offense. criminal, according to FBI crime data.

The president’s pardon of more than 6,500 Americans with federal marijuana possession convictions, along with thousands more convicted in the majority-black city of Washington, captures only a fraction of those with records across the country. That’s likely why he called on state governors to take similar action for those convicted of marijuana possession.

“While whites and blacks and browns use marijuana at similar rates, blacks and browns have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said Thursday. “Just as no one should be in federal prison solely for possession of marijuana, no one should be in local jail or state prison for that reason either.”

With the President’s unambiguous acknowledgment of racial inequality in marijuana law enforcement, drug law reform advocates and those with convictions now see an opening to push for many more remedies for the evils of the war on drugs.

Weldon Angelos, whose 2003 federal case for selling $300 worth of marijuana to a confidential informant in Utah got him sentenced to 55 years in prison, said he knows many people who will benefit from the pardon Of the president. But there are also many others who won’t, he said.

“I feel like this is a first step for (Biden) to do something bigger,” said Angelos who, after serving 13 years in prison, received presidential clemency and a pardon under administrations. Obama and Trump. He is now a drug law reform campaigner.

Felony cannabis cases like his are also worth considering, Weldon said. Biden’s pardon does not cover convictions for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, which could further expand the number of people receiving assistance by tens of thousands.

Enacting legislation that erases a person’s federal criminal record, similar to what has been proposed in nearly two dozen states where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized for recreational use, would make the conviction invisible to businesses and owners conducting criminal background checks, he said. Even with the federal pardon, Weldon’s case is still visible, he said.

“There’s a lot more to do here, if we really want to mitigate the effects, and the racist effects, of the war on cannabis,” Weldon said.

Some advocates believe the country should consider suppressing more than just marijuana registrations. In the 1990s, Marlon Chamberlain was a student in Iowa when he learned that his then-girlfriend was pregnant with his oldest son. He started using cannabis to cope with the anxiety of becoming a young father and soon after started dealing drugs.

“I thought I would try to make enough money and afford to take care of my son,” said Chamberlain, a 46-year-old Chicago native. “But I got addicted to the lifestyle and went from selling weed to selling cocaine.”

Chamberlain said he had a slew of state charges for possession of marijuana between the ages of 19 and 25. But it was a federal crack cocaine case, in which authorities used his prior marijuana arrests to add seriousness to their life-altering case. . Chamberlain was sentenced to 20 years in prison before the sentence was reduced to 14 years under the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder forms of cocaine. He was released after 10 years.

Even though he won’t benefit from Biden’s marijuana pardon, Chamberlain sees it as an opportunity to advocate for the elimination of what he calls “permanent punishments,” such as difficulty finding a job or housing. that accompany a drug offence. .

“What Biden is initiating is a process of making amends” for the war on drugs, he said.

Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis use in 2012, although medical use was already legal in several states. According to the National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform, 37 states, the District of Columbia and four US territories now allow the medical use of cannabis. Nineteen states, DC and two territories have legalized its recreational use.

And in next month’s midterm elections, voters in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota will decide whether to allow adult recreational cannabis use. That’s reason enough for every state to look into mass pardons and expungements, civil rights leaders say.

“How fair is it that you legalize marijuana now, tax it to use these state taxes to fund the government, but forget all the people who are in jail or were incarcerated while it was illegal ? NAACP President Derrick Johnson told the AP. “All individuals who have been charged with marijuana-related crimes should be pardoned, especially those in states that have legalized marijuana.”

Richard Wallace, executive director of Equity and Transformation, a social and economic justice advocacy group in Chicago, said state pardons must also come with some form of restitution to those who have suffered economically. of the racially discriminatory war on drugs.

“We need to think about putting in place lasting reparations campaigns centered on the legalization of cannabis,” he said. “I think a lot of times we end up fighting for pardons and expungements, and we leave out the economic component.”


Aaron Morrison is a New York-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

ABC News

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