Students applaud Biden marijuana pardons

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant News Editor

Last month, President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level. Emerson students and experts alike believe the pardon moves toward repairing the harmful effects of the war on drugs, which Biden called a “failed approach” to drug control policy, and has disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown Americans. 

The pardon will not release anyone from prison, as there is no one currently in federal custody solely for simple marijuana possession, nor will it erase convictions from past records, as it’s a pardon, not an expungement

It does, however, expand second chances for people previously convicted of simple possession, helping restore civil liberties lost due to such convictions—like the right to vote and serve on a jury—for those whose marijuana possession charge was the only felony on their record. The pardon can also revive economic and social opportunities, opening access to jobs, housing, student loans, and occupational licenses.

These benefits will only apply to the 6,500 people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and an estimated thousands more convicted in the District of Columbia—not the 3,000 others charged for higher level marijuana crimes, like distribution, who remain in federal prisons.

Despite this, “I think it’s amazing,” said Tomas Gonzalez, the chief of staff of Seed dispensary, the storefront of Boston cannabis company Core Empowerment. “It helps a small fraction of people affected and wrongly incarcerated in this country, but it’s a start. In all honesty, it’s really the first major stone thrown in the pond. I think [it] will hopefully be a domino effect for other things to move forward.”

Core Empowerment, which is owned and led by women and members of marginalized communities, is equal parts dispensary and museum, with the Core Social Justice Cannabis Museum located with the dispensary in Jamaica Plain.

The museum’s current collection, “American Warden,” aims to educate about the history and science of cannabis while urging guests to scrutinize incarceration in America against the backdrop of marijuana prohibition. It draws attention to high incarceration rates for cannabis possession and distribution, especially among Black and brown individuals.

Gonzalez noted that while the U.S. makes up about 5% of the global population, the country comprises more than 20% of the world’s prison population, incarcerating about two million people.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 45% of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that Black people are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 10 times higher than white people, despite both populations using drugs at roughly the same rates.

“From the very beginning, it’s been racist,” Gonzalez said regarding U.S. drug policy.

Senior visual and media arts major Jack Loney said he is in favor of the pardon and thinks it should be implemented at the local level.

“[Marijuana is] already legal in so many states and there’s such a huge push to legalize it nationally that, at this point, keeping people in jail for possession is just furthering the prison industrial complex, and it’s just a way to keep mostly people of color and poor people incarcerated,” Loney said.

Ryan Dominguez, executive director of CultivatED, said he thinks Biden’s pardon is “more symbolic than anything,” as its reach doesn’t extend to the thousands of people who remain incarcerated for marijuana possession within state prisons. 

CultivateED is a Boston-based “jails to jobs” program that helps educate, employ, and expunge the records of people affected by the war on drugs. The program operates through the Roxbury and Holyoke community colleges and has helped 60 people expunge or seal their records and obtain employment in the local cannabis industry.

Dominguez said he thinks the pardon will help people access employment or restoration programs like CultivatED without having to navigate the “long legal process” of erasing simple possession records.

However, he noted that a first arrest for marijuana possession often leads to further legal entanglements, piling more charges onto an individual’s record. He estimated that only five to ten percent of the people in CultivatED were convicted for simple possession alone, and an even lesser number on the federal level. 

For this reason, he said, many people affected by cannabis charges fall outside the realm of Biden’s pardon.

“It was more of a really good signal by President Biden and [his] administration to local, state governments to try to do it on the state and city levels,” Dominguez said. “I think that’s really where the impact is going to happen—more locally.”

Biden urged governors to follow his lead and pardon simple possession offenses on the state level. However, the governors most sympathetic to the president’s cause are “way ahead of him,” as Politico reports, with most of the 19 states that have fully legalized marijuana already having moved to issue pardons or expungements for nonviolent offenders.

In Massachusetts, where marijuana has been fully legal since 2016, former Governor Charlie Baker said he would not follow Biden’s lead in issuing pardons within the state. Rather, he pushed expungement as the simplest way to handle marijuana possession convictions, emphasizing the state’s existing legislation, which allows individuals once prosecuted for cannabis-related conduct to seek out and erase their records.

While Gonzalez was happy with Biden’s pardon, he believes Baker’s response put a damper on the announcement, reminding him of the progress yet to be made on a local level.

“I just think that was a very sad response after such a happy moment,” Gonzalez said.

However, Democratic governor-elect Maura Healey, the former Attorney General, told the Boston Globe that she would follow Biden’s request and move to issue pardons for marijuana possession.

Junior business of creative enterprises major Annabelle Polak said she thinks Biden’s pardon is a “great step in the right direction,” and believes his announcement highlights the issues of mass incarceration and marijuana criminalization regardless of whether or not further action is taken at the local level.

Polak said she couldn’t help but notice the timing, with Biden implementing the pardon roughly a month before voters took to the polls for midterm elections this past Tuesday. 

“I definitely think it’s a positive thing,” Polak said. “But also, it sounds just like voter election bait.”

Sophomore journalism major Eva Levin also noted the political backdrop of Biden’s announcement.

“It’s kind of changed my perception of Biden,” Levin said. “I feel like there were a lot of promises [in his campaign] that were not fulfilled, and he’s kind of just getting them done right now before midterms.”

Despite the fact that she found it “obvious” that Biden announced the pardon in October to get ahead of the elections in November, Levin said she’s “happy that it’s getting done, even if it’s a baby step.”

Amanda Meyers, a senior theater and performance major, recreationally uses marijuana and said it has changed her life.

“I think the way that it’s changed and expanded the ways that I think have made me a better person, have made me a better student, a better thinker, a better friend, a better citizen of America, and made me more curious about the world in ways that I wasn’t before,” Meyers said.

Legalizing marijuana is a “no brainer,” she continued, because she feels it has both scientific and medicinal value, and because its prohibition has “profusely and unnecessarily” incarcerated people of color.

“I think [cannabis] is something that should be and deserves to be explored, and not criminalized, especially when it seems like it’s really enabling racism,” Meyers said.

In addition to the pardon, Biden announced that his administration would review whether the drug should remain in the Schedule I legal category, which classifies it as a highly addictive substance unapproved for medical use, often seen at the same level as drugs like LSD and heroin.

Gonzalez and Dominguez both agree the Biden Administration should remove marijuana from the Schedule I legal category, which they said would change prohibitive banking laws and tax implications in the cannabis industry while also reducing social stigma around marijuana.

“Marijuana itself, the word and everything, has been so racialized,” Dominguez said. “I think those myths still are prevalent in our society, and for a lot of the politicians that are making these types of rules, they’re probably a lot older and come from that same line of thinking.”

Gonzalez applauded Biden’s pardon as a step towards unraveling the stigma and effects of the war on drugs.

“This country has had to confront and deal with reparations on so many different levels, and I think this is just another example,” Gonzalez said. “I just hope that this is the first step in many things that are to come, because there’s a lot of reform and work that needs to be done.”