The Department of Justice (DOJ) has begun issuing formal certificates to individuals whose convictions for marijuana possession were covered under President Joe Biden’s (D) mass cannabis pardon last October. The documents are intended to allow people to demonstrate that they were granted clemency, which could help avoid obstacles to housing, employment, education and child custody caused by a federal criminal conviction.
Although neither DOJ nor the Office of the Pardon Attorney has announced the issuance of the certificates, at least some applicants have now received the documents in digital form. One recipient, Kevin B. Gilnack, posted an image of his certificate on social media Thursday morning.
Gilnack, now a public affairs consultant and father in Massachusetts, was arrested in Washington, D.C. by federal Park Police in 2006, the day after he graduated from American University, he told Marijuana Moment in an email. He was found with about an eighth of an ounce of cannabis, he said, resulting in six months of probation.
“I can only imagine how much the federal government wasted on prosecution, court appearances, my federal defender, and my supervised probation,” he said, “but I do remember the indescribable stress and personal and professional costs that I incurred due to America’s broken drug laws.”
When DOJ launched the pardon certificate program back in March, the Pardon Attorney’s Office said at the time that Biden’s pardon “lifts barriers to housing, employment and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions.”
All told, Biden’s pardon impacts about 6,500 people who committed the federal possession offense. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) detailed the demographics of those who received a pardon in an analysis last year.
For Gilnack, at this point in his life, having the certificate is mostly symbolic.
“While I recognize the pardon applies with or without the certificate, I wanted documentation confirming that it applied to me and to have tangible recognition of the president’s historic actions,” Gilnack wrote. “I’m fortunate to be secure in my housing and professionally but hope the certificate will open new opportunities for those who have been held back by their involvement in the criminal justice system.”
“I’m not sure if they will mail an official copy,” he added,”but certainly hope they do as the seal affixed via PDF doesn’t feel quite as official as it would on a hardcopy.”
Applying for the certificate “was a pretty seamless and straightforward process,” Gilnack said, adding that pardon certificate came “within a week of requesting it.”
For eligible people who haven’t yet applied, Gilnack encouraged them to track down the date of their conviction as well as their case’s docket number. The Pardon Attorney’s Office estimated in March that “it would take approximately 20 minutes, but likely no longer than 2.5 hours per individual” to provide all the necessary information requested on the application.
According to documentation Gilnack shared with Marijuana Moment, the Pardon Attorney’s Office also contacted him after he applied to request further information, including documentation confirming the conviction. He responded with the necessary details and received his pardon certificate the next day.
Elizabeth G. Oyer, who was appointed as Biden’s pardon attorney in April 2022 and whose signature appears on Gilnack’s certificate, said in a recent DOJ video that “thinking about criminal sentencing has changed significantly since the height of the war on drugs, and the president is in a position, with his clemency power, to correct some of the injustices that resulted from those prosecutions.”
The video notes the striking racial discrepancies in cannabis arrests, especially during the 1980s. From 1980 through 1989, for example, the arrest rate among white people rose 56 percent, while the arrest rate for Black people was four times greater—up 219 percent. During the same period, it says, the arrest rate among white people for drug sale or manufacture rose by 127 percent, while arrest rates of Black people for the same violations increased by 363 percent.
Biden’s October 2022 pardon proclamation was fairly limited in scope, applying only to federal cases and not those at the state level, where the bulk of simple possession convictions occur. It also did not free anyone who is currently incarcerated and excluded immigrants, members of the military and people who were convicted of selling cannabis.
Some advocates and affected individuals have criticized the slow rollout of the pardon certificate application, which didn’t launch until nearly six months after Biden’s mass clemency announcement. Oyer explained the early delays last December by saying, “it sometimes turns out in government that making something simple takes longer than making it complicated and just implementing it as quickly as possible.”
Gilnack, who applied only this month, said that while the process wasn’t difficult, he ran into one “temporarily troubling issue” when the DOJ website returned an error message after he submitted his application. Fortunately, however, the system also sent a confirmation email to let him know the application went through.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (D) recently touted the mass marijuana pardon—as well as the White House’s scheduling review directive—as part of a campaign meant to “mobilize our young people” as next year’s election approaches.
“The criminalization of marijuana possession has upended too many lives—for conduct that is now legal in many states,” says a “Fight for Our Freedom” campaign factsheet.
“The president announced a full, unconditional, and categorical pardon for prior federal and DC simple marijuana possession offenses,” it says. “This pardon lifts barriers to housing, employment, and educational opportunities for thousands of people with prior convictions under federal and D.C. law for simple marijuana possession.”
Gilnack said he was “deeply grateful to President Biden for working to undo some of the harms of our failed drug policies” but urged governors to follow the president’s lead and pardon cannabis convictions at the state level. For example, in his home state of Massachusetts, which legalized marijuana for adults in 2017, the law allows for people to petition a judge to have their conviction expunged, but the process does not happen automatically, as it has in some other states.
As of December 2022, nearly 2 million marijuana convictions had been pardoned or expunged nationwide.
In Nevada, for example, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced that his office was pardoning more than 11,000 people who had previously been convicted of simple cannabis possession just a day before legal sales launched there in 2019.
The governor of Oregon also granted a mass pardon for state-level marijuana possession offenses to provide relief to an estimated 45,000 people—a move she described as “truly an act of mercy” (and one that received praise from Biden).
Even some mayors have facilitated tens of thousands of pardons in their cities. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) facilitated pardons for 8,000 residents with marijuana records in 2020, and he followed up later that year by introducing an ordinance to end all penalties for marijuana possession under the municipality’s local laws.
And Mayor Randall Woodfin (D) of Birmingham, Alabama, said at a congressional hearing last year that he’s processed about 23,000 pardons for residents with cannabis records.
Oyer, the U.S. pardon attorney, noted last year that, like Massachusetts and other jurisdictions with manual processes, her office was initially reviewing “every individual clemency application on an individualized basis.”
“That could change at the direction of the president,” she noted. Four months later, Biden announced mass marijuana pardons.
A public comment period on the pardon certificate program closed last month.
Below is a copy of Kevin Gilnack’s pardon certificate granted by DOJ this week:
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