President Joe Biden pardoned every person convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law last week as policymakers belatedly recognize that people should not have their lives ruined over a drug that is now legal for recreational use in 19 states.
Having a criminal conviction imposes “needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities,” Biden said in a statement last Thursday. “And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
The White House estimates that about 6,500 people convicted under federal law will receive pardons, in addition to those convicted under D.C. law, which relies on federal statutes since the District of Columbia is not a state. No one is currently incarcerated in federal prison solely on simple possession charges, but the pardons could ease some of the challenges people with criminal records face. The pardons do not expunge one’s criminal record, but they do lift restrictions on voting rights and holding office, and could make it easier to get a job or a place to live.
The pardons represent a positive step toward acknowledging and rectifying the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis. But Biden had other relief options for people facing federal marijuana charges that he didn’t take. The pardons do not apply to anyone charged with selling or distributing weed, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of people with federal cannabis-related convictions. The policy also excludes immigrants who were not lawfully in the country at the time of the offense.
Biden does not have the power to aid people convicted of marijuana-related crimes in state courts, who far outnumber those who faced federal convictions. He did ask governors to follow his lead in pardoning people with simple possession charges at the state level — and many governors already had, particularly in states where the drug is now legal. In the states that haven’t, most Republican governors are unlikely to heed Biden’s call.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“I knew it wasn’t going to apply to me when the words ‘simple possession’ continued to come up. But I say, show the same grace to the seller as you do to the consumer,” said Stephanie Shepard, the partnerships manager at Last Prisoner Project, a group that works to free people imprisoned for cannabis. “I was very happy for the people who can start to mend these collateral consequences that they continue to undergo while being a felon. I’m very happy that the conversation has started, but it’s just that — it’s a start.”
“Some people were really excited until they found out it only applies to simple possession. A lot of them were frustrated. They were very saddened that it didn’t help them.”
Shepard spent nine years in federal prison after being convicted of conspiring to distribute marijuana. When she was released, she had two weeks to find a job or risk violating the terms of her probation. Having a felony record made it difficult to find employment or a place to live — but she knew that if she failed, she risked going back to prison. For people on probation, “there’s no room for falling or tripping,” she said.
Even now, stably employed, Shepard still deals with constant anxiety stemming from her conviction and her two remaining years of supervised release. “It’s the feeling, the tenseness I get when a police officer pulls up next to me,” she said. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m fully licensed, fully insured. But just that knowing of what can come from it — I would be back in prison, serving the remainder of my sentence. Once he passes me, then I can feel my hands relax, and my shoulders let down. But it’s like that all the time.”
It’s difficult to pin down an exact number of people who are currently incarcerated or facing post-release restrictions because of weed convictions. For the tens of thousands who don’t benefit from Biden’s policy shift, “there’s mixed feelings,” said Weldon Angelos, co-founder of the Weldon Project, an organization that helps people with cannabis convictions apply for clemency. “Some people were really excited until they found out it only applies to simple possession. A lot of them were frustrated. They were very saddened that it didn’t help them. But there are others that feel like this is a good step in the right direction.”
When Angelos was getting his start as a hip-hop music producer, he sold small amounts of weed to help pay the bills. Eventually, he landed a record deal and put out an album with Snoop Dogg. Just as his career was taking off, an acquaintance who had recently gotten out of prison asked Angelos to sell him weed. Unaware that the acquaintance had become a confidential informant, Angelos sold him $300 worth of cannabis on three separate occasions.
Prosecutors made the stunning decision to charge Angelos with 20 different federal crimes that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of more than 100 years in prison if he was convicted on all counts. He was ultimately convicted on 16 of the counts, resulting in a mandatory 55 years in federal prison, a sentence the George W. Bush-appointed federal judge in the case, Paul Cassell, described as “unjust and cruel and even irrational.”
After spending 13 years in prison, Angelos received clemency from President Barack Obama during Obama’s final year in office. He received a full pardon in 2020 from President Donald Trump.
“I was lucky. A lot of people don’t have rappers, famous celebrities and senators pushing for them. My judge was also one of my most vocal advocates,” Angelos said.
Had his case not generated so much national attention, Angelos would likely still be in prison today and exempt from Biden’s pardons.
Even people who never went to prison for their cannabis convictions face life-altering consequences for the criminalization of a substance that is now legal for millions of Americans. When Morgan Fox, the political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was in college, he was convicted on state charges of simple possession, which are not eligible for a pardon by the president. The convictions prevented him from receiving federal student loans, so he had to take out private loans instead. Until he started working at nonprofits, he had a hard time finding a job outside of restaurant work.
“That was bad and annoying for me, but it’s nothing compared to what people without my same privilege and socioeconomic status are getting saddled with,” Fox said in an interview. “One of the reasons that I got into this field was because when I went to court, I saw people with the exact same charges, the exact same criminal history that I had, on the same day, with the same judge. And people that didn’t look like me were getting much stiffer sentences.”
The stakes of a marijuana conviction are particularly high for immigrants excluded from Biden’s pardons. In their case, even using weed at home in states where it is legal could result in “life-destroying penalties,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center said in a statement. Immigration penalties for marijuana possession include “detention in ICE facilities, with no right to a bond hearing; removal proceedings with no counsel even for detained indigent people; and mass deportations that have permanently separated hundreds of thousands of families,” the group said.