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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 4, 2022

Biden hasn’t moved on promise to decriminalize marijuana use.

Most Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup, but that hasn't influenced President Joe Biden to take steps toward his campaign promise to decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level.

"Unfortunately, we have not seen any steps or even the indication of serious consideration for a step in the right direction when it comes to marijuana policy reform and the Biden administration," said Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which supports decriminalization.

Drug policy experts pointed to several examples of steps the administration could take.

Maritza Perez, a director at the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that supports changing marijuana laws, said that Biden could order the Justice Department to deprioritize marijuana prosecutions or use his clemency power to release people serving time for federal marijuana offenses. Biden could also throw his weight behind the MORE Act, a bill that would remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminate criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes or possesses marijuana. The bill was introduced in May by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and has 101 co-sponsors. 

The MORE Act is one of several legislative proposals to decriminalize marijuana possession that haven't reached a vote. U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced a bill in November that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, allowing states more latitude to set their own laws. Mace's bill had four co-sponsors as of early January. 

Under the Controlled Substance Act, the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule 1 substance, the most serious level, "meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Under federal law a person convicted of marijuana possession can face one year in jail for their first offense, and two or three years for subsequent offenses. But the majority of arrests are made by state or local law enforcement, and state penalties vary.

Many states over the past decade have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use. Eighteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of May, 36 states and four territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products.

Andrew Sidman, chair of the political science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said criminal justice reform has taken a back seat as the Biden administration focuses on other priorities including COVID-19, inflation and his Build Back Better social safety-net legislation. 

"Criminal justice reform is not a place where the president is going to try to spend political capital," Sidman said. 

Biden could take some actions without legislation, such as making drug enforcement a reduced priority, but he has chosen not to take steps on his own, Sidman said. Meanwhile, given the partisan split in the Senate, legislation to decriminalize marijuana is unlikely to move forward. 

Biden still has time, but so far he hasn't taken any steps to fulfill his promise. We rate this promise Stalled. 


RELATED: Federal law still prohibits marijuana use, including on college campuses

RELATED: All of our fact-checks about marijuana

 

Our Sources

Congress.gov, H.R.5977 - States Reform Act, Introduced Nov. 15, 2021

Congress.gov, H.R.3617 - MORE Act of 2021, Introduced May 28, 2021

NORML, Federal Laws and Penalties

Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, Drug fact sheet, April 2020

National Conference of State Legislatures, Cannabis Overview, July 6, 2021

National Conference of State Legislatures, State Medical Cannabis Laws, Nov. 29, 2021

Gallup, Support for Legal Marijuana Holds at Record High of 68%, Nov. 4, 2021

PolitiFact, Barack Obama says it's up to Congress to change how feds classify marijuana, Feb. 4, 2014

Email interview, Professor Andrew Sidman, chair of the department of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Dec. 21, 2021

Telephone interview Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Dec. 13, 2021

Email interview, Maritza Perez, director, Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, Jan. 3, 2021

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