Drug Policy

Outside the White House, Protesters Urge Biden To Release Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders

While Biden's mass pardons for those with low-level marijuana possession convictions were greeted with cautious optimism, protesters expressed frustration over Biden's lack of action to actually release those imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes.


On Monday, protesters convened outside the White House and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building to call on President Joe Biden to release nonviolent inmates serving federal prison sentences for cannabis-related charges. The protest, led by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Last Prisoner Project, sought to highlight the insufficiencies of Biden's recently announced pardons for those convicted of marijuana possession.

Earlier this month, Biden announced that he would be pardoning the roughly 10,000 American citizens and permanent residents convicted of low-level marijuana possession charges. While the proclamation has been praised by drug reform advocates, the pardons are far from a radical step toward ending the drug war. In fact, the pardons will not free a single person from prison, instead benefiting only a minuscule portion of Americans with misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

While marijuana policy reform advocates have greeted the announcement with cautious optimism, many have also responded with frustration, arguing that the pardons do little in terms of substantive changes to U.S. drug policy. In particular, many protesters cited disappointment with Biden's failure to make good on several campaign trail promises, notably his statement during a November 2019 debate that "I think we need to decriminalize marijuana. Period. And I think anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, records expunged." Monday's protests convened to emphasize this point, with activists arguing that, while Biden's actions are a good start, they are inadequate to repair the failings of decades of marijuana prohibition.

After first gathering around the statue of President Andrew Jackson at 10:00 a.m., protesters gathered outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Demonstrators tell Reason that they were attempting to block the staff entrance to the building, partially to provoke arrest, but also in the hopes of speaking with a Biden staffer.

Multiple protesters tell Reason that they hoped to be arrested by the end of the day, and would be deliberately blocking 17th Street to encourage possible arrests. Eventually, at 2:45 p.m., activist and Students for Sensible Drug Policy board member Sarah Noon was arrested by three Secret Service agents after she appeared to attempt to enter a fenced-off area near the building.

"I've been arrested 29 times, so I know what it's like. And I've been a criminal justice policy reformer since the late '90s," Adam Eidinger, the proposer of 1-71, D.C.'s marijuana legalization law, tells Reason. "It's time for this generation to stand up for the people in prison that are unlucky enough to have been incarcerated."

Eidinger, whose hemp business, Capitol Hemp, was raided in 2012, leading to the arrest of six staff members and the loss of $350,000 worth of merchandise, also emphasized the irony of keeping nonviolent marijuana sellers in jail while a legal market for the substance booms. "Today, if corporations can buy and sell it, if you can buy stock in cannabis companies in U.S. markets, it's actually a moral travesty that there's anyone behind bars for a single cannabis crime," Eidinger tells Reason. "I don't care how big a kingpin of cannabis they were, let them out and let them run a cannabis business. They've already done their time. The world has changed and so these people need to be freed. Most states are moving to a legalization model."

However, the protesters' main message was distilled by Maya Tatum, the former board chair of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who tells Reason, "No one, first and foremost, should be in prison for cannabis…[Biden] needs to do what he said he would do and release all cannabis prisoners now." Tatum continues, "I grew up in Chicago, I was a person that directly experienced the negative effects of the war on drugs. I've had countless family members be incarcerated for marijuana. I have family members that are still incarcerated for marijuana."

To many drug policy reform activists, Biden's recent proclamation does precious little for those imprisoned—some with life sentences—for nonviolent marijuana-related charges. Rather than make good on his campaign trail promises, Biden has done the bare minimum, attempting to garner political goodwill without actually freeing anyone imprisoned by policies Biden himself once heralded.

"[Many people] didn't get incarcerated. They were buying and selling cannabis during prohibition too. So the unlucky ones are in jail," Eidinger tells Reason. "Luck shouldn't determine your fate on this planet. It should be about fairness and justice, so I think the president has a moral obligation to release people."

This article contains reporting from Addie Mae Villas.