Biden Hedges on His Promise To Free Pot Prisoners

The president still has not caught up with most Americans on marijuana policy.


Just before he left office, President Donald Trump freed more than a dozen federal prisoners who had received sentences ranging from 15 years to life for growing, transporting, or distributing marijuana. Yet President Joe Biden, who during his campaign said "anyone who has a [marijuana] record should be let out of jail" and promised to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes," is suddenly reticent about following Trump's example.

While Biden has come a long way since his days as an ardent drug warrior who bragged about the draconian sentences he helped enact, he still has not caught up with most Americans on marijuana policy. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 69 percent of Americans, including 78 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans, support legalization.

Biden—unlike most of the Democrats he beat for his party's 2020 presidential nomination, including his vice president—opposes repealing the federal marijuana ban, a position that puts him in the minority even within his age group. Instead he wants to decriminalize low-level possession, an idea that was at the cutting edge of marijuana reform in the 1970s.

Since the Justice Department rarely prosecutes marijuana users, Biden's proposal would have little impact at the federal level. And it would do nothing to address the untenable conflict between the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the laws that allow medical or recreational use of marijuana in 36 states.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D–N.Y.) plans to reintroduce a legalization bill that was approved by the House of Representatives in December but was never considered by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) says his chamber likewise will soon consider legislation that would "end the federal prohibition on marijuana."

When New York Post reporter Steven Nelson asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during a briefing last month whether Biden would sign such a bill, she reiterated his support for reclassifying marijuana "so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts," for allowing medical use, for letting states legalize recreational use, and for "decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records." Pressed to explicitly say whether Biden would sign a legalization bill, Psaki replied, "I just have outlined what his position is, which isn't the same as what the House and Senate have proposed."

Unlike legalization, freeing marijuana prisoners would not require an act of Congress, and it is consistent with what Biden said on the campaign trail. His promises created a reasonable expectation that he would show mercy for marijuana offenders who continue to languish in federal prison, such as Ismael Lira and Pedro Moreno, who are serving life sentences for distributing cannabis from Mexico.

As Corvain Cooper, one of the marijuana lifers freed by Trump, told Nelson, "No one should be serving a long prison sentence over marijuana when states and big corporations are making billions of dollars off of this plant." Yet when Nelson asked Psaki about clemency, she irrelevantly noted Biden's support for moving marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA to Schedule II.

Nelson tried again the next day, noting that Biden bears personal responsibility for the lengthy sentences imposed on people for peaceful activities that are now legal in most states, including at least 17 that already or soon will allow recreational sales. "Will President Biden honor his commitment to release everyone imprisoned for marijuana?" he asked.

Psaki did not deny that Biden had made that promise. But she brought up "rescheduling" again and claimed she did not know the answer because it depends on arcane legal knowledge.

"What you're asking me is a legal question," Psaki said. "I'd point you to the Department of Justice."

The "legal question" is not complicated. Biden's commitment to "broadly use his clemency power" has nothing to do with rescheduling marijuana, and he could begin delivering on it today if he were so inclined. Psaki's obfuscation suggests it is not a high priority.

© Copyright 2021 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Rotten to the core, SleepyJoe is.

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  2. Good thing all the Reasonistas voted for this.
    No more lies!

    1. Giving free pot to prisoners? What a guy. It will make their sentence for drug crimes go by more quickly.

    2. We Koch / Reason libertarians overwhelmingly supported Biden to make billionaires — especially our benefactor Charles Koch — even richer. And it’s working.


  3. Rescheduling would be significant progress. Of course Biden should free drug war prisoners. But to the extent that they still believe in and support the drug war (and leave prison clutching a ‘peer addictions counselor’ certificate), it won’t make any long term difference.

    1. Progress yes, but I wouldn’t go so far as calling it significant. Remember cocaine and methamphetamine are also schedule-II

  4. Let them rot.

    1. they said the same about you.

  5. I am shocked that Biden isn’t keeping his promises! It’s almost like he just says random shit and none of it means a goddamn thing.

  6. Freeing pot prisoners was never the priority for us Koch / Reason libertarians. It’s more important that Biden has freed the kids in cages. As I’m sure you’ll recall, he liberated and dismantled Drumpf’s concentration camps immediately after taking office.


  7. “His promises created a reasonable expectation…”

    Someone really hasn’t been paying attention to politicians.

  8. US federal law prohibits placing a substance with proven medical uses on schedule I.
    Marijuana has proven medical uses.
    Not removing marijuana form schedule one is a violation of federal law, and therefore an impeachable offense.
    Where is Ms. Pelosi?

  9. He is saving this for the next election cycle, come on man you gotta think like a professional politician. What would he gain by doing it now?

  10. The first sentence of this article is the first time Sullum has written something positive about Trump in the past five years.

    Seems like Sullum’s TDS is waning now that he (and the rest of us) has seen just how disastrous Biden’s presidency has been (and will continue) for liberty, free markets and America.

    In contrast, Trump was the most libertarian president since Cal Coolidge.

  11. “What you’re asking me is a legal question,” Psaki said. “I’d point you to the Department of Justice.”

    “What you’re asking me is a medical question. I’d point you to the Surgeon General.”

    “What you’re asking me is an ethical question. I’d point you to the Department of Philosophy.”

    1. She’ll circle back in those questions.

    2. The questions always end up in the Dept of FYTW.

  12. What’s wrong Sullum, that’s your boy. You voted for a brain dead, senile, compulsive liar and he is just doing what he does best.

  13. Speaking of free pot I saw that a place in Michigan is offering free pot to people who got their vaccine.

    Also there is free beer and doughnuts from some companies.

    1. Any free pans to go with that free pot? I could use someone cook ware. To make cannabis edibles.

  14. broken record, but (D) will never federally legalize tha’green.

  15. If Trump had legalized weed he would have won.

    1. if votes instead of farce T would have won.

    2. Maybe, but he didn’t. So what your point.

      1. He wouldn’t have won anyway. Ballots would have kept appearing til Biden was declared the winner.

  16. 78 year old senile man wears an onion on his belt which was the style at the time. And occasionally yells at clouds.

    (back when the Simpsons were only woke during a throwaway Lisa episode)

  17. If Trump would have freed all of the political prisoners, this would not be an issue.

    1. Yes, but he mostly focused pardons on those who could testify against him. He did however forget to pick-up Giuliani and Gaetz.

      1. Such incisive observations!

  18. As was done with the refugee cap, we should be reminding President Biden of this promise.

  19. Biden “LIES” on His Promise To Free Pot Prisoners
    Come on Reason admit your support for Biden was a mistake and stop sugar coating the words you use to describe this disaster of a president’s policies.

  20. Biden “LIED” on His Promise To Free Pot Prisoners
    Come on Reason admit your support for Biden was a mistake and stop sugar coating the words you use to describe this disaster of a president’s policies.

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