President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he is pardoning every U.S. citizen and lawful resident convicted in federal court of simple marijuana possession. That is a very fortunate announcement for the several thousand people convicted at the federal level of simple possession, but it still leaves thousands of other federal cannabis offenders facing draconian sentences for larger quantities.
Consider, for example, that just months ago, Biden's Department of Justice successfully prosecuted a man named Jonathan Wall and sought 10 years to life in prison for the crime of conspiracy to distribute cannabis. While Biden deserves praise for pardoning people no longer imprisoned, it is important to remember that he is extending that olive branch while insisting that the people who sold them marijuana should be caged for decades.
"It remains deeply disturbing," Jason Flores-Williams, who represented Wall in court until the conclusion of his trial in May, tells Reason. "While we're glad that the president is pardoning people for pot possession, really what needs to happen is the decriminalization or total legalization of marijuana so that people like my current clients and people who I've represented don't spend any time of their short precious lives incarcerated in a cage for a plant that I can go buy around the corner."
Flores-Williams notes that he still represents several people accused of marijuana distribution. The disconnect between possession and distribution got even wider today, as those charged with the latter will continue to face prison terms exceeding those served by defendants convicted of rape, assault, and various types of homicide.
"This is not a case about marijuana possession," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anatoly Smolkin said during Wall's trial. "This is a case about a drug conspiracy to distribute massive amounts of marijuana around the country." If possession should not be a crime, why are we caging people who help others secure access to cannabis?
These days, many consumers buy cannabis legally, including at the brick-and-mortar stores popping up in cities around the U.S., where it is legal at the state and local levels but still federally prohibited. Wall is no worse a violator of federal law than the cannabis businesses located just a mile or so from the White House in D.C., and no worse a person than the people who Biden now insists should never have been incarcerated in the first place. After his conviction, he now faces a minimum of a decade behind bars.
"He's trying to adopt the most politically expedient by which this can somehow be done without fully being done," says Flores-Williams. "Federal prohibition of marijuana has been a mistake from day one. Too many people have suffered, and right now the penalties are so radically diverse and unjust." With Biden's announcement, that gap just broadened.