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Biden Promotes Marijuana Reform In State Of The Union Address, A Historic First

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For the first time in history, the president of the United States used part of his State of the Union address to promote marijuana reform, touting the mass pardons he’s issued, affirming his position that nobody should be incarcerated over possession and noting the review into cannabis’s scheduling status that he initiated, according to the tex of the speech as prepared for delivery.

In his last SOTU ahead of his fight for reelection this year, President Joe Biden noted his move “directing my Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana.”

In an apparent reference to his mass cannabis pardon proclamation, Biden claimed he is “expunging thousands of convictions for the mere possession, because no one should be jailed for simply using or having it on their record.”

The president has routinely promoted the thousands of pardons he’s granted through a pair of proclamations in 2022 and 2023 in various speeches, but raising the issue during the prime time annual event carries substantially greater weight.

Of course, as Biden has become known to do, his remarks exaggerate the impact of the pardons, as the criminal records were not expunged but rather symbolically forgiven.

And as advocates have repeatedly pointed out, pardons for simple possession did not release anybody from federal prison. Thousands also remain incarcerated for non-violent marijuana offenses that weren’t covered under the clemency action.

But in front of the country on Thursday, the president made a point to highlight the action, which is politically meaningful, especially ahead of the November election. It reflects a recognition of the popularity of cannabis reform from the White House at a critical time.

Based on a recent poll, Biden’s cannabis moves stand to benefit him in November. The survey found the president’s favorability spiked after people were made aware of the possibility that cannabis could be rescheduled under the Biden-initiated review.

Following the review, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

While that possibility evidently moves the needle for Biden among the general public, equity-focused advocates have stressed the point that it would not legalize marijuana, nor would it do anything to address the decades of harm under prohibition. It would allow state cannabis to take federal tax deductions that they’re currently barred from under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E, however.

Whether DEA accepts the HHS recommendation is yet to be seen. And while many expect an announcement will happen before the election, the timeline is uncertain.

The Biden administration was recently pressed to reschedule marijuana by two coalitions representing military veterans and law enforcement—including a group that counts Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Anne Milgram among its members.

On the president’s pardon action, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last month that the clemency should be “extended all the way out, and any unintended or intended consequences of the war on drugs should be dealt with to repair the damage.”

Former Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), however, told Marijuana Moment that he’s been “very pleased” with Biden’s clemency actions, arguing that the president has “taken some pretty, in my opinion, bold steps.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army recently clarified in a branch-wide notice that marijuana possession violations under the military drug code weren’t eligible under the president’s pardons. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) called it a “mistake” to exclude military from the relief.

Vice President Kamala Harris’s office has separately been reaching out to people who’ve received marijuana possession pardons—seeking assurance that the Justice Department certification process is going smoothly and engaging in broader discussions about cannabis policy reform.

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