Biden pardons thousands convicted on federal marijuana charges

President Biden pardoned thousands of Americans convicted on federal charges of simple possession of marijuana and encouraged governors to do the same. The president also directed his administration to review how marijuana is classified as a drug under federal law. Law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler joined Laura Barrón-López to discuss the announcement.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Biden's executive action today on marijuana convictions and regulations is this administration's most significant action to date on drug reform. White House correspondent Laura Barrón-López has more.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    President Biden laid out three steps today to end what he calls a failed approach on marijuana. He announced that — pardons for past federal and District of Columbia convictions for marijuana possession, a call for governors to take the same action for state convictions. And he directed federal agencies to review whether marijuana should still be classified as one of the most dangerous drugs under federal law.

    Here with me now is Mark Osler. He is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School in Minneapolis and a former federal prosecutor.

    Mark, thanks for joining us.

    So, out of this announcement, what is the piece of it that could potentially have the biggest impact?

  • Mark Osler, Former Federal Prosecutor:

    Probably the talk about rescheduling marijuana.

    The pardon is probably going to impact a relatively small number of people, most of whom had misdemeanors as their crime of conviction. In the broader scope of things, reconceiving exactly how dangerous marijuana is and how the feds approach it is the bigger story.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And so if the administration actually moves forward with de-scheduling marijuana, what immediate practical change would occur? And what kind of timeline would we see?

  • Mark Osler:

    Well, it's going to change the ability of federal authorities, for example, at the border, where a lot of these cases come, from prosecuting people simply for that.

    It's going to also send a message to the states as well. We will no longer have as much of a conflict between federal and state law on marijuana, especially in those states where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And de-scheduling is effectively the same as decriminalization, correct?

  • Mark Osler:

    Yes.

    There's other ways that marijuana is embedded in federal law and in the penal code. So there's going to be some cleaning up to do beyond simply de-scheduling. But, yes, that's a big part of it.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    We're very close to the midterm elections. You have talked to the White House and other officials within the administration. Why do you think they decided on this now?

  • Mark Osler:

    It may have had political considerations taken into account.

    But it could be just that it took a while to get to the point where they were ready to pull the trigger on this, that there is a lot of people who have to check off on this kind of a decision, particularly within the Department of Justice, where they're pretty loath to give up control over anything.

    And so even the consideration of the scheduling of marijuana and such a relatively broad pardon is something that it probably took a while to get everybody in line to say yes to that.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Part of that decision on de-scheduling or is also going to include the health and human services secretary. Is that a normal step, as far as you know?

  • Mark Osler:

    Well, I think they're having broad consultation amongst the people whom it will affect.

    And the scheduling of any narcotic does affect health services, obviously. Right now, in Schedule 1, marijuana is — what Schedule 1 means is that it has no medical use, no legitimate medical use. Now, obviously, the majority of the states disagree with, where some medical use is allowed.

    And so in terms of using marijuana in a way that's consistent and the way that the government approaches it, Health and Human Services would have to be involved. And they want to get buy-in from them.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The other part of this announcement is that it will impact more than 6,500 individuals convicted between 1992 and 2001. So, what is the reality for those 6,500 people who were previously convicted.

  • Mark Osler:

    It's going to affect their criminal record that they have got a misdemeanor on their record. We're not talking about thousands of people walking out of prison. That's not what this is going to create.

    But, instead, it's going to be thousands of people who have lived with a misdemeanor on their record that they have to report periodically, and that's going to be gone. Is that going to change the landscape of the war on drugs? Probably not, but it will mean something to those people who get that benefit.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    That brings me to another issue with — under marijuana convictions and potentially commutations.

    In April, President Biden commuted the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders. Only nine of those within the total commutations and pardons were for marijuana offenses. So there are roughly 2,700 nonviolent marijuana offenders in federal prison. Is that something that you think the administration could potentially move on either later this year or early next year?

  • Mark Osler:

    Yes, I think so.

    And that's the obvious next step is that, right now, those are people that would have been convicted of trafficking offenses. Now, of course, a lot of times, when people convicted of trafficking offenses, they were doing things that are legal now.

    For example, there's one man, Lance Gloor, he was running a legal marijuana dispensary in the state of Washington. And so, yes, that is the logical next step to an approach. And we're hoping that the administration will take that step.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And so what do you say to people who would argue that commuting the sentences of those offenders who potentially sold huge quantities of marijuana is not the right path to take?

  • Mark Osler:

    Well, certainly, there's other things that go with that kind of narcotic trafficking. And if you have a situation where there was violence associated with it, we can expect that they will be treated differently.

    But, for the most part, when we look at these cases, it's people who are doing things that are right now being done by companies across the country.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Very quickly, Mark, if I could ask you, you have told me before that you think the administration's path on this has been somewhat cautious. How does it stand up to prior presidents?

  • Mark Osler:

    Well, let's compare this.

    The last real broad categorical part and that we can compare this to is Jimmy Carter's broad amnesty that he gave to draft evaders. And that was much bolder, because it granted much greater relief. He did it on the very first day he was in office. And it cut at something that was still controversial in American society, the way that marijuana possession (INAUDIBLE)

    So, it's still not going bold, but we can hope that they will be something that's considered in the future.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Mark Osler, thank you so much for your time.

  • Mark Osler:

    Thank you.

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