By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Saying “it makes no sense,” President Joe Biden on Thursday pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and instructed his administration to consider whether cannabis should get a new drug classification.
The president’s announcement — four weeks ahead of the mid-term elections — could eventually make it easier for marijuana companies to conduct business in Florida and throughout the country.
Biden called on authorities to look at removing marijuana from a federal list of dangerous “Schedule 1” drugs that includes drugs such as 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 upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden said in a statement issued 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 broad swath 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 to bankroll a proposal for the 2024 ballot that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults over age 21.
Biden pledged pardons for simple marijuana-possession crimes as 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 unjust sentencing whose lives have been upended or even destroyed.”
Fried, who lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in August to Charlie Crist, said she intends to call on DeSantis to address the issue at the state’s next clemency board meeting. The board is made up of the governor and state Cabinet.
Marijuana advocates for years also have pushed for cannabis to be removed from the list of Schedule 1 drugs.
“The president is doing the right thing 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 prepared 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 not have any immediate impact on Florida because of the state classification law.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana. Lawmakers grudgingly rolled out the state’s medical-marijuana program to comply with the 2016 constitutional amendment. As an example, they banned smokable marijuana until pushed by DeSantis to reverse course after he took office in 2019.
Legislative leaders also periodically have toyed with the idea of imposing caps on the level of euphoria-inducing THC in smokable medical marijuana.
Even so, industry insiders on Thursday were cautiously optimistic, noting that cannabis company stocks, which are traded on the Canadian stock exchange, jumped 30 to 40 percent after Biden’s announcement.
“Anything’s helpful 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 thing is banking reforms and letting these companies do business like any other regulated business, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, many banks will not handle marijuana operators’ money. The companies also cannot take advantage of federal income tax breaks. A reclassification of marijuana could change that.
Biden on Thursday directed U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland “to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously 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 long-overdue 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 over simple cannabis possession charges,” Rivers said in a statement.
Biden’s move “is a recognition of the general sentiment nationally that seems to be in favor of legalization of marijuana or at least decriminalization of low-level marijuana offenses,” attorney Jim McKee, who also specializes in medical-marijuana law, said in an interview.
But some people questioned whether Biden’s action was a political move timed to generate enthusiasm among Democratic voters in the lead-up to next month’s elections.
“I think this is a big deal only insomuch as 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 attorney Daniel Russell, who represents Fried in a lawsuit against the Biden administration challenging federal prohibitions against 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 mentally ill people.
Winsor will hold a hearing in the lawsuit next week.
“Having been fighting the Department of Justice on this issue for six months, reading pleadings filed as of last week basically treating these medical patients like crack dealers, I’m delighted to see the president move on this issue,” Russell, a lawyer with the Dean Mead firm, said.