Biden seeks to redress racial disparities with marijuana pardons and drug clemencies

Christmas has come early for some as President Joe Biden announced the commutation of 11 nonviolent drug offenders and moved to pardon thousands convicted of simple possession and use of marijuana on federal lands.

“It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden said in a statement released Friday morning. 

Biden announced that the nearly dozen people having their sentences commuted had served “disproportionately” long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, explaining, “All of them would have been eligible to receive significantly lower sentences if they were charged with the same offense today.”

The president also signed a proclamation issuing additional pardons for marijuana offenses following a spate of pardons in October 2022.

“Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” said Biden. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana.”

The president vowed that his administration will continue to review clemency petitions and “deliver reforms that advance equal justice, address racial disparities, strengthen public safety, and enhance the wellbeing of all Americans.”

President Joe Biden said Friday that the nearly dozen people having their sentences commuted had served “disproportionately” long sentences. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Biden’s Friday announcement was quickly praised by Democrats and advocates. 

“This is a big step towards progress,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential and other national campaigns. 

He told theGrio, “This further indicates that this president understands the needs and the actions of those who have traditionally been left behind, including marginalized communities.”

Markus Batchelor, the national political director at People For the American Way, called Biden’s actions “an incredibly important step in helping to heal harm inflicted by the war on drugs.” 

He told theGrio that it gives “real people,” who are disproportionately Black, “new opportunities for not just redemption and restoration, but employment, housing, and education.”

The president’s marijuana pardons and simultaneous clemencies come the same week that the White House touted the nation’s first-ever federal database tracking police misconduct. The database fulfilled an executive order Biden signed on the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. 

On Thursday, Biden also traveled to Milwaukee to highlight the administration’s historic investments in Black-owned small businesses, which are seeing the fastest-growing pace in over 30 years.

These actions come amid polling data suggesting the reelection campaign of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris is losing some ground with Black and young voters. The campaign has been aggressively working to message to key voters what the administration has done on various fronts, particularly on the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Black male voters have been a particular focus among Democratic strategists who worry the potentially disillusioned demographic could find former President Donald Trump more alluring in next year’s presidential election. 

Biden’s pardon and clemency announcements especially give Black male voters “something to talk about” in spaces where Democrats “need to do a better job of meeting Black men where they are,” said Seawright, whether at the barbershop or “at the spades table [and] the fraternity meeting.”

“I think this is another demonstration of his commitment to dance with those who brought him to the dance,” he added, referring to the outsized role of Black voters, particularly in his home state of South Carolina, in electing Biden and Harris to office in 2020.

Seawright noted that while the White House has been doing much work related to criminal justice and other reforms, administration officials haven’t “taken the victory laps” or “beat their chests enough about what they’ve done.” 

“President Biden said on election night that Black voters had his back and he would have ours,” Batchelor recalled of 2020. “Now’s the time to raise the rhetoric on the real barriers facing Black Americans and deliver in ways people can see.”

The political organizer said things like criminal justice reform and small business development are “important to Black men in particular,” which is a group he noted is being heavily targeted by the far right with “dissent and disinformation.”

Seawright said the key for the Biden-Harris administration to continue moving the needle is “reminding folks what has been done” and “showing the contrast of who is against these types of measures and who will take them away if the thermostat were to change.”

As president, Trump notably pardoned criminal offenders under the bipartisan First Step Act, which applied reforms to criminal sentencing on the federal level. 

Alice Marie Johnson (center), among those whose sentences were commuted by then-President Donald Trump (left), celebrates the First Step Act, which passed in December 2018 with bipartisan support. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While the twice-impeached and four-times indicted former president has touted this achievement to woo Black and brown voters, Seawright said, “It’s important to note that he couldn’t have done what he did without Democrats.”

He added, “The First Step Act is one thing, but it did not cancel out the racism, bigotry, hate, and Trumpism – which most people call extremism – that comes along with him.”

Democrats and the Biden-Harris White House will have to “over-message” and “over-amplify” these criminal justice reforms and what they mean, said Seawright.

“This is a bold but much-needed and necessary step towards making an honest attempt to fix [the] system,” he said. “It’s a tremendous step considering we have not had a president, at least in my lifetime, take this kind of executive action.”

Batchelor, a Washington, D.C., native and longtime advocate of statehood for the district, said Biden’s executive action will play a critical role in the nation’s capital. 

“While D.C., in particular, has done everything we can to repair this harm, our courts are federal,” he noted. “The president’s national announcement will have a hyper-local impact on the futures of district residents, which has among the highest incarceration rate and percentage of returning citizens of any state.”

Batchelor, however, issued a call to action for Biden on reforming marijuana laws as 24 states so far have legalized the drug, and several others have legalized it for medicinal use. 

“While recreational use and possession is legal [in Washington], a federal budget rider has banned legal sales for nearly a decade,” he explained, which he said Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses have left in. 

“It’s created a dangerous ‘half-market’ that causes other safety and justice threats to communities we’re trying to help,” said Batchelor. He added that there’s “more work to be done.”

Harris, in a statement reacting to Friday’s news, said it demonstrates what she and Biden have made clear: “We must continue to change our nation’s approach to marijuana and reform the criminal justice system.”

“As I have declared many times before, no one should be in prison simply for smoking weed. That is why we continue to call on Governors to join us in this long-overdue work,” said America’s first Black and first woman vice president. 

“President Biden and I will continue to work to address historic inequities and racial disparities in federal drug policy and sentencing,” continued Harris, “to make sure that our justice system truly lives up to its name.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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President Joe Biden has announced the commutation of 11 nonviolent drug offenders and pardoning thousands convicted of simple possession and use of marijuana on federal lands. He stated that it is time to right these wrongs and that these individuals served disproportionately long sentences for nonviolent drug offences. The president also issued additional pardons for marijuana offences, acknowledging that criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed barriers to employment, housing, and education. This announcement was praised by Democrats and advocates, as it addresses the harm inflicted by the war on drugs and provides new opportunities for redemption, employment, housing, and education, particularly for Black individuals. These actions come amid polling data suggesting that the administration is losing ground with Black and young voters, and the campaign has been working to message what the administration has done, particularly on the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pardons and clemencies are seen as a step to make an honest attempt to fix the system, but there is still more work to be done, particularly in reforming marijuana laws and addressing racial disparities in federal drug policy and sentencing.

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