President Biden issues pardons, looks at reclassifying marijuana

TALLAHASSEE – Saying “it makes no sense,” President Joe Biden on Thursday pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and directed his administration to consider whether cannabis should be reclassified as a drug.

The president’s announcement, four weeks before the midterm elections, could ultimately make it easier for marijuana companies to do business in Florida and across the country.

Biden urged authorities to look at removing marijuana from a federal list of dangerous “Schedule 1” drugs, which includes drugs like heroin and LSD. Florida law also classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.

Biden’s pardons will affect about 6,500 people nationwide who were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law from 1992 to 2021, according to The New York Times.

The president also urged governors to take similar steps to clear people convicted of state crimes involving simple possession of pot.

“Too many lives have been changed because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time we correct those mistakes,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he would consider such pardons.

Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for a wide range of patients, and the state has more than 750,000 patients deemed eligible for the treatment.

The state’s largest medical marijuana operator, Trulieve, is helping bankroll a 2024 ballot proposal that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults over 21.

Biden promised pardons for simple marijuana possession offenses when he campaigned for president more than two years ago.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former medical marijuana lobbyist, called Biden’s actions “an extraordinary step forward in the name of justice for the victims of wrongful conviction whose lives have been changed or even destroyed.”

Fried, who lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in August to Charlie Crist, said she intends to encourage DeSantis to address the issue at the state’s next pardon board meeting. The board consists of the governor and the state cabinet.

Marijuana advocates for years have also pushed for cannabis to be removed from the Schedule 1 list.

“The president is doing the right thing by ordering a review of the classification of marijuana, and I am pleased to see that this will be an expedited process,” Fried said in a statement. “Today is a victory and we owe you our gratitude for responding to our calls for justice, President Biden.”

But changing the classification at the federal level, a process that could take years, would have no immediate impact on Florida because of state classification law.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has adopted a hard line on marijuana. Lawmakers reluctantly rolled out the state’s medical marijuana program to comply with the 2016 constitutional amendment. As an example, they banned smoky marijuana until pressured by DeSantis to reverse course after he took office in 2019.

Legislative leaders have also periodically toyed with the idea of ​​imposing caps on the level of euphoria-inducing THC in smokable medical marijuana.

Still, industry insiders were cautiously optimistic Thursday, noting that Canadian-traded cannabis company shares jumped 30 to 40 percent after Biden’s announcement.

“Everything is good for the cannabis industry right now. I think it’s an important step forward,” John Lockwood, an attorney who represents medical-marijuana operators, told The News Service of Florida. “But there’s still a long way to go. The biggest is banking reforms and allowing these companies to do business like any other regulated business, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, many banks won’t handle marijuana operators’ money. The companies also cannot take advantage of federal income tax breaks. Marijuana reclassification could change that.

Biden on Thursday directed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland “to initiate the administrative process to rapidly review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” The president’s statement pointed out that marijuana’s Schedule 1 status ranks “even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine—the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.”

Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers praised Biden’s “monumental actions to address lagging criminal justice and federal cannabis policy reforms.”

“This is truly a life-changing day for thousands of individuals who have had their livelihoods and opportunities negatively impacted by simple cannabis possession charges,” Rivers said in a statement.

Biden’s move “is a recognition of the general sentiment nationally that appears to be in favor of legalizing marijuana or at least decriminalizing low-level marijuana offenses,” said attorney Jim McKee, who also specializes in medical marijuana law , in an interview. .

But some people questioned whether Biden’s action was a political move timed to generate enthusiasm among Democratic voters in the run-up to next month’s election.

“I think this is only a big deal because the president is trying to get his supporters to vote for Democratic candidates in November. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am,” Tallahassee lawyer Daniel Russell, who is representing Fried in a lawsuit against the Biden administration challenging federal bans on marijuana users buying guns, told the News Service.

The Justice Department has asked U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that marijuana users “pose a danger comparable to, if not greater than, other groups that have historically been disarmed,” such as the mentally ill .

Winsor will hold a hearing in the lawsuit next week.

“After fighting with the Department of Justice on this issue for six months and reading briefs filed last week that basically treated these medical patients as crack dealers, I’m glad to see the president move forward on this issue,” Russell, an attorney with the Dean Mead firm, said.

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