Calling the criminalization of marijuana a “failed approach,” President Joe Biden announced a pardon of all federal marijuana possession charges Thursday — and urged governors to follow suit with state-level convictions for marijuana possession.
The federal pardon will affect about 6,500 people, The New York Times reported, but the vast majority of marijuana possession crimes are charged on the state level, not in a federal case.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about Biden’s announcement.
Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, was quick to announce his support for the president’s action.
“When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession,” O’Rourke said in a statement.
According to the Texas law, the governor can issue pardons only if a majority of Board of Pardons and Paroles members make such a recommendation in writing.
This year through August, Texas prosecutors filed more than 14,000 misdemeanor pot possession charges, so far leading to more than 5,000 convictions, according to statewide court data. Pot possession is a misdemeanor for up to 4 ounces, and a felony for quantities beyond that.
Marijuana prosecutions dropped dramatically after 2019, when Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and as a result complicated how law enforcement can determine if something is illegal cannabis. In 2018, for example, nearly 50,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges were filed.
I assume that a relatively large portion of the 6,500 people who will receive the federal pardon are in Texas; we’re a big state with a significant non-white population, so just on the numbers we’ll be home to a lot of the beneficiaries of this. I haven’t seen what that number might be, nor do I know how many people could be pardoned for state offenses, if Greg Abbott were so moved. We know that loosening marijuana laws polls well in Texas, though it’s not clear to me if these pardons would be as popular; my guess is they’d have significant support but maybe not as much as expanding medical marijuana access or decriminalizing pot for recreational use. This announcement may help charge up the youth vote, but again it’s hard to say by how much or what the net effect might be. We’re unlikely to get any insight from polling at this point.
The President’s actions were right on the merits and I daresay good on the politics. They were sufficiently long-awaited that I’d say some people had expected them to never happen. As is usually the case with federal action, Texas will get the smallest possible benefit from it because our state leaders won’t allow for any more than that. I assume I don’t need to tell you what we could do to affect that.