Analysis: Biden’s marijuana move could change lives – and impact midterms
By granting clemency for federal marijuana possession convictions, President Joe Biden is taking a historic step that is expected to be wildly popular and could energize key Democratic constituencies just over a month away from the midterm elections.
It would change the lives of thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession, especially if governors followed the president’s lead.
But it also risks playing into virulent Republican attacks calling Democrats soft on crime, which are rocking several key pre-election contests that could hand over control of the Senate and House of Representatives to the GOP.
The president’s decision is limited, for now, and does not go so far as to legalize the drug – an issue that is at the heart of some campaigns this fall – including that of Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, whose candidacy in the Senate is the best of Democrats. chance to overturn a seat and could decide the fate of the chamber.
Specifically, the president will take executive action to pardon all previous federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. He also asked the Justice Department to review how the drug is classified under federal law. It is currently programmed on the same level as more harmful substances like LSD, heroin and fentanyl and methamphetamine. White House officials said there were 6,500 people convicted of simple possession of weed under federal law between 1992 and 2021. Thousands more have been convicted by the state.
“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a video. “It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to unnecessary barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And that’s before tackling racial disparities around who suffers the consequences.
Officials in any administration often balk at the suggestion that their moves are purely politically motivated. But Biden’s decision on this issue represents a campaign promise kept, and it’s being rolled out just weeks before a midterm election, so it’s hard not to see it as a highly political move.
Biden’s action will, for example, appeal to civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates since black Americans — a key demographic in the Democratic Party — are more than three times more likely to be arrested for possession of drugs. marijuana, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
And as with his plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt, Thursday’s decision looks like an attempt to enthuse young voters, who are increasingly open to using marijuana at times. recreational purposes and who are notoriously difficult to drive to the polls, especially in midterm elections. . Democratic hopes of fending off a Republican red wave in November have been boosted by heightened grassroots enthusiasm following the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling – a trend that Biden’s marijuana pardons could extend. Yet two new CNN polls in Arizona and Nevada — two crucial Senate battlegrounds — show the economy and inflation remain the most important issues for voters and pose a strong threat to Democratic candidates given their monopoly on political power in Washington.
A Democrat immediately tried to exploit Biden’s decision for his campaign. Beto O’Rourke, who is plotting a long-running bid to overthrow Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, released a statement promising, “When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana. .”
In some ways, the debate over the legal status of marijuana parallels the changing social attitudes that drove the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage, as the public seemed to be well ahead of political leaders on the question.
Weed is becoming more and more socially acceptable and popular, a factor that is recognized below the federal level with multiple state ballot initiatives and laws legalizing it.
Just a few months ago, a Gallup poll revealed for the first time that more Americans (16%) said they smoked weed than they had smoked a cigarette in the previous week (11%).
And in research that could underscore Biden’s policy goals, the National Institutes of Health reported in August that marijuana use among young adults has reached all-time highs. Some 43% of this cohort reported using weed in the past year in 2021, up from 34% in 2016 and 29% in 2011.
Last year, Gallup found that 68% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use. That figure suggests significant bipartisan support for the president’s historic first foray into the marijuana debate. It’s also a takeaway from ballot initiatives and legislation to decriminalize or legalize marijuana from Democratic-led Oregon to Republican-dominated South Dakota. A total of 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization dedicated to the legalization of cannabis.
Yet despite these societal changes, some politicians are still reluctant to act aggressively on the issue. Biden himself has undergone a protracted evolution, but his actions on Thursday still stop short of the full decriminalization of the drug. CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported that there were infighting inside the White House ahead of Thursday’s announcement, complicated by Biden’s personal skepticism about decriminalization.
Some politicians still seem to worry about being seen as lenient with drugs, as well as concern that full decriminalization of pot could lead to more drug use among young people. Earlier this year, for example, Delaware Democratic Governor John Carney vetoed a bill that would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, citing uncertainty over long-term health, his impact on youth and law enforcement issues.
The president’s decision could play out in midterm election campaigns, even at this late stage. Republicans have rooted their efforts to win the House and Senate in part on ads and rhetorical attacks that paint Democrats as anti-police and soft on crime. They conjure up an image of a nation cowering in violent crime that can all be kicked out of Biden.
Abbott was quick to push back on the president’s call for governors to emulate his executive orders and explained how some Republican candidates might react.
“Texas isn’t used to heeding criminal justice advice from the leader of the police defund party and someone who oversaw a rampaging criminal justice system with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals,” Abbott campaign spokeswoman Renae Eze said. (Biden and many of this year’s Democratic candidates in top races have said they don’t support defunding the police.)
But Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian advocacy group that has often been a force in GOP politics, praised the president’s decision, pointing out how the marijuana issue doesn’t always follow straight party lines.
“We should prioritize the resources of the criminal justice system to protect life, liberty and property, not to incarcerate people who do not pose a threat to public safety,” the deputy told AFP. -President of Government Affairs Brent Gardner.
“Congress must act to end Prohibition,” he continued.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in April, with a narrow bipartisan majority. But action has stalled in the equally divided Senate, one of the reasons Biden is using his executive power to act.
Opponents of legalization often argue that in addition to having potentially negative health effects, marijuana can be a “gateway” drug that can lead to other addictions and potentially criminal behavior.
In a major report released last week, the Republican Review Committee — a major House GOP caucus — released policy recommendations for conservatives and highlighted opposition to any move to make marijuana more acceptable.
“Marijuana remains a federally controlled substance, but that hasn’t stopped more and more states and localities from legalizing it under their own laws. This has led to an explosion in marijuana use among children, which has an extremely negative impact on their health,” the report said.
“Congress should not legalize marijuana, while taking steps to limit this new industry’s ability to harm children.”
While marijuana is considered by many users to be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, Biden’s own administration warns that in the short term it can cause shifts in perception and disorientation. In the longer term, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice, the drug can lead to “physical dependence and withdrawal after discontinuation, as well as psychological dependence or dependence.”
Biden’s move was immediately welcomed by criminal justice reformers, however, given the wide racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.
“President Biden’s executive order is transformative for the lives of thousands of individuals and families harmed by our broken cannabis laws,” Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said in a statement. “This is a big step towards a fairer criminal justice system and a more rational drug policy.”
And Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Biden has righted a historic wrong and warned that the “war on drugs” has harmed communities of color.
“Despite the legalization of marijuana in many states, federal prohibition has resulted in too many arrests and prosecutions of black and brown people, fueling mass incarceration and the devastation of our communities,” Wiley said.
“Everyone in America – regardless of race or background – has the right to live safely, provide for their families, and build the future they want. We urge Congress to pass a complete drug reform legislation and send it to the president’s office.