Biden issues pardon for simple possession of marijuana convictions; DeJear promises to ‘legalize cannabis in Iowa’ as governor

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On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced “a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.”

“There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result,” the president said in his statement announcing the pardon. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”

The official proclamation of the pardon specifies that it only applies to simple possession “and not any other offenses related to marijuana or other controlled substances,” and “does not apply to individuals who were non-citizens not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offense.”

Biden also announced he has directed to the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “to review expeditiously” marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug. Federal law defines a Schedule I drug as one “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” which lumps marijuana in with other drugs such as heroin. Removing marijuana from Schedule I and legalizing its use by adults, something Biden promised to do during the 2020 presidential campaign, would require congressional approval.

Despite its scheduling, the medicinal uses of marijuana are, of course, widely recognized and 37 states, including Iowa, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have medical cannabis programs.

It is also at the state-level that the vast majority of arrests and convictions for simple possession of marijuana take place, and a presidential pardon does not affect state court convictions. In his statement announcing the federal pardon, Biden called on “all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.”

“Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”

Democratic candidate for governor Deidre DeJear immediately responded to Biden’s announcement with a tweet in which she pledged to “pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses and legalize cannabis in Iowa.”

Throughout her campaign for governor, DeJear has stated she would expand the state’s medical cannabis program and legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

“We know that a majority of Iowans want to see recreational cannabis in the state,” DeJear said at a July campaign event in Iowa City. “We know that a majority of Iowans want to see extended access to medical cannabis in the state. We also know last year, over the course of eight to nine months, Iowans went to Illinois and spent $26 million. And that wasn’t on shoes.”

“And we did not get any benefit from it. So, it is time that we not only legalize it in this state, but we also create some regulations around it because we know that it is happening.”

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DeJear said marijuana should be regulated in the same way alcohol is regulated in Iowa.

Libertarian candidates for governor have called for legalization both this year and in the past, but DeJear is the first candidate from one of the two major parties in Iowa to back the idea. She notes that many states have already legalized recreational use, and Iowa can draw on those experiences to create reasonable regulations.

“Imagine what resources we can put into mental healthcare” with the additional tax revenue, DeJear said during the July event. “Imagine what resources we can put into education. Imagine a paid parental leave program in this state, so when people have babies they don’t fear losing their jobs.”

As DeJear said parenthetically in her tweet on Thursday, “we all know Kim Reynolds won’t” legalize marijuana. The reason “we all know” that is because the governor has said exactly that.

In an interview with the Gazette in 2019, Reynolds said, “I do not support recreational marijuana. I don’t. I won’t be the governor to do that.”

Iowa Cannabis Co. opened a medicinal cannabis dispensary off Hwy 1 in Iowa City, October 2021. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Last month, Reynolds repeated her opposition. The governor, who has talked openly about overcoming an addiction to alcohol after being arrested twice in less than 12 months for drunk driving two decades ago, considers marijuana to be too dangerous to legalize.

“I believe marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to other illegal drug use and has a negative effect on our society,” she told the Des Moines Register.

Reynolds did not make any public response on Thursday to the president’s actions.

In his statement announcing the pardons, Biden said, “even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place.”

The president also acknowledged the racist impact of what he called “this failed approach” to regulating marijuana.

“[W]hile white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said.

A report published by the ACLU in 2020 found Iowa had one of the worst racial disparity problems in the country when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession. Based on data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the United States Census Bureau’s annual county population estimates, the report found a Black person was 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person nationwide. In Iowa, a Black person is 7.26 times more likely to be arrested.

Only Montana, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia had worse racial discrepancies in arrests for marijuana possession.