President Joe Biden recently told the press that he is “working on” fulfilling his promise to free federal prisoners who are doing time for minor cannabis crimes.
While on the campaign trail in 2020, Biden promised that he would work to reform America's criminal justice system if elected. As part of this plan, the future president said he would free inmates who are serving time for minor cannabis or other drug-related crimes. Vice President Kamala Harris also told the press that although she supported full federal legalization, she had made a deal with Biden to at least decriminalize cannabis on the federal level.
Two years later, these promises remain almost entirely unfulfilled. So far, Biden's track record when it comes to cannabis reform is as bad as the previous administration, or maybe even worse. The president has already suggested that he would veto any of the comprehensive federal legalization bills that are circulating through Congress. His administration has also advocated against granting veterans access to medical marijuana and legalizing adult-use sales in Washington DC, and even fired staffers who got high in the past.
And despite his promise to pardon each and every prisoner serving time for drug crimes, Biden has only managed to grant clemency to a few dozen. Last fall, the feds notified around 1,000 inmates serving home confinement for federal drug crimes that they may be eligible for relief. So far, 78 have actually received clemency. Congressmembers, rappers, athletes, state politicians, and advocates have written dozens of letters to the president begging him to make good on his promises, but to no avail.
After years of ignoring these pleas, Biden has at last suggested that some progress is being made. In a very brief interview this weekend, Steven Nelson of the New York Post asked the president if he would be honoring his “campaign pledge to release all the marijuana inmates in prison.” Biden answered that he doesn't think that “anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana,” and added that “we’re working on the Crime Bill now.”
At present, it's unclear exactly what crime legislation the president is referring to, and the White House did not offer any further details. What is clear is that Biden does have the executive authority to grant clemency to federal inmates without Congress’ help. The president is legally able to grant pardons or commutations to pretty much any criminal, and former President Obama used this power to grant clemency to nearly 800 drug prisoners in his last year in office. Former President Trump even pardoned dozens of people serving excessive sentences for minor weed crimes.
Without additional details, it's impossible to know whether or not Biden intends to finally make good on his promises. The current administration has repeatedly suggested that it is warming up to weed, though. Last month, White House “drug czar” Rahul Gupta suggested that the administration was actually considering the possibility of federal cannabis decriminalization. And after years of actively interfering with cannabis research, the DEA has actually started to relax its stranglehold on federally-licensed cannabis cultivators and expand quotas of research-grade weed and psychedelics.