VP Kamala Harris Touts Marijuana Pardons In Pitch To Black And Young Voters, Saying ‘Nobody’ Should Be Jailed For ‘Smoking Weed’

Vice President Kamala Harris says the administration’s move to pardon people for federal marijuana possession offenses is an example of how it is delivering for Americans, particularly young and Black voters who could be key to President Joe Biden’s reelection bid this year.

The White House also cited the cannabis clemency move in a new fact sheet on efforts to “advance racial justice and equity and ensure the promise of America for all communities.”

Speaking with Gray DC in South Carolina ahead of the state’s primary election last weekend, Harris was asked about the significance of the Black youth vote for the Biden-Harris campaign. She stressed the importance of reaching that demographic and said cannabis clemency is one action that should be uniquely appealing.

“Another issue [is] what we have done to pardon tens of thousands of people for simple marijuana possession under the federal law—because, frankly, nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed,” Harris said.

“So these are some of the things that we have done that I think really do resonate with young people, with Black voters and young Black voters, with young Black men,” she said, also citing efforts to increase access to high-speed internet and fund historically Black colleges and universities. “And there’s more to do.”

While Harris said “tens of thousands” have been pardoned under President Joe Biden’s October 2022 and December 2023 clemency proclamations, the Justice Department estimates that roughly 13,000 people have been granted relief under the executive action.

But inflated rhetoric around the pardons has been a consistent theme, with Biden himself frequently exaggerating the impact by falsely suggesting that people were released from prison over marijuana and that criminal records were expunged. A pardon simply constitutes formal forgiveness, and nobody who received a pardon was actively incarcerated in federal prison over simple possession.

As advocates have also pointed out, there are still people in federal prison over other non-violent marijuana offenses. They’ve pushed the Biden administration to do more, including keeping his key cannabis campaign pledge to decriminalize marijuana.

In any case, the White House on Tuesday touted the marijuana pardons and a separate scheduling review Biden initiated in a new fact sheet focused on how the administration is taking steps to advance “equity and opportunity for Black Americans and communities across the country.”

The president has “taken steps to right the wrongs stemming from our Nation’s failed approach to marijuana by directing the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice to expeditiously review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law and in October 2022 issued categorical pardons of prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana and in December 2023 pardoned additional offenses of simple possession and use of marijuana under federal and D.C. law,” it says.

“While white, Black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionately higher rates,” the White House said.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is now seeking White House approval to update its data collection process related to marijuana pardon certificates that it is issuing under the president’s expanded clemency proclamation.

People who are eligible for the pardons don’t need to apply for a certificate; the relief is automatic, but the administration wanted to give individuals an opportunity to have it formally documented if they desire. The Justice Department was quick to open the updated applications and has already begun issuing certifications.

While Biden campaigned on marijuana decriminalization, and Harris sponsored federal marijuana legalization legislature during her time in the Senate, the pardons and an administrative directive for federal agencies to review cannabis scheduling represent the extent of the marijuana reform actions in the White House to date.

Under the directive, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and now it’s up to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to make the final call.

By repeatedly touting his mass cannabis pardon and scheduling review, it seems Biden is aware of the political popularity of marijuana reform. And a recent poll suggests he stands to gain significantly in terms of favorability if his scheduling directive results in a reclassification under federal law.

It found that voters’ impression of the president jumped a net 11 points after hearing about the possible implications of the rescheduling review—and that includes an 11-point favorability swing among young voters 18-25 who will be critical to his reelection bid.

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Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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