OP-ED: We Must Hold The Biden Administration Accountable To The Black Community On Marijuana Reform


WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 28: U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for a meeting with police chiefs from across the country and members of his administration in the State Dining Room at the White House on February 28, 2024 in Washington, DC. Biden touted achievements in reducing crime thanks to investments made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

No one should be in jail or arrested for marijuana. Yet, despite evidence that white and Black communities use marijuana at similar rates, Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Despite dozens of states passing laws to legalize marijuana for medical and adult use, both continue to be criminalized under federal marijuana law. A federal marijuana conviction could severely impact a person’s ability to feed or house their family, and so many have lost food benefits, housing, employment, and education.

In 2020 President Biden campaigned on a promise to end marijuana criminalization. In order to keep that promise, marijuana must be descheduled, meaning it must be removed entirely from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA regulates certain drugs under federal law by placing them into one of five schedules and criminalizing unauthorized activity. For far too long Black communities have borne the brunt of the CSA’s criminal penalties. It’s time to finally end federal marijuana criminalization by descheduling it.

Let’s just be honest — the Biden Administration has yet to deliver its promises of federal marijuana reform to Black communities. And despite both President Biden and Vice President Harris calling federal marijuana criminalization a racial equity issue, the recent and anticipated actions of their Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) highlight the gap between the Administration’s rhetoric and their willingness to actually address it as such.

While the rest of us recognized the beginning of Black History Month, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) instead chose the first day of February to celebrate #DEAHistory and President Nixon, who signed the CSA and infamously weaponized federal marijuana policy that targeted and harmed Black communities.

For many– the post from the Biden Administration’s DEA was a dog whistle. It’s no secret that racism was at the center of DEA’s history and marijuana criminalization. Harry Anslinger believed that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and as director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (predecessor to the DEA) Anslinger championed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which criminalized marijuana at the federal level. Consistent with their celebration of government leaders who used drug policy to criminalize Black communities, the DEA museum has an online exhibit dedicated to Anslinger’s ‘life in service.’ 

The same federal agency that today celebrates President Nixon’s and Harry Anslinger’s racist history is now tasked with, and has the final decision over, an official review of how marijuana is classified under the CSA. While this review doesn’t even mention any of this history, it is likely to result in an outcome that would continue perpetuating racial inequalities.

“Pledging to decriminalize marijuana and simply moving it around the CSA is nothing more than moving the peas around on the plate to try to trick your mama into thinking you’re eating your vegetables. Your mama wasn’t fooled, and neither are we.”

When initiating this review in 2022, President Biden called marijuana criminalization a failure, acknowledged that Black and Brown people were disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and convicted and suggested that his actions on marijuana reform would “end the country’s failed approach” and “right its wrongs.” 

Despite this rhetoric, it is expected that the DEA will propose that marijuana be rescheduled as a Schedule III drug, a classification that, while technically less restrictive in some respects, would continue federal marijuana criminalization and its harms. The marijuana industry will celebrate it as a victory because it will give them tax relief, but individuals will still be vulnerable to federal penalties. A person could still lose their job over a marijuana conviction. A person could still be deported for working in a licensed dispensary in a state where marijuana is legal.

The hard truth is that rescheduling won’t decriminalize marijuana use, it won’t expunge records, and it won’t decriminalize activities currently authorized under dozens of states’ medical and adult-use marijuana laws.

In 2020 Biden and Harris pledged to decriminalize marijuana use and expunge related records, including this pledge in their Lift Every Voice Plan for Black America. President Biden acknowledged his role in passing drug policies that “harmed Black communities,” calling them a “mistake”. Vice President Harris called for systemic change when discussing marijuana decriminalization in 2020, saying “This is no time for half-steppin. This is no time for incrementalism.”

Now the Administration is claiming responsibility for reforms that are incremental at best, and that haven’t even been fully realized. Regardless of this reality, in campaign ads the Biden Administration is already claiming that it has “changed federal marijuana policy”, and in campaign speeches President Biden is already referring to his actions granting federal pardons for simple possession as evidence of “promises kept” on marijuana reform.

In actuality, pledging to decriminalize marijuana and simply moving it around the CSA is nothing more than moving the peas around on the plate to try to trick your mama into thinking you’re eating your vegetables. Your mama wasn’t fooled, and neither are we.

We know the difference between scattered promises and systemic change. We bear the brunt of disproportionate criminalization, and it’s up to us to hold the Biden Administration accountable for promises they made to our communities. If the Biden Administration truly means to keep their many promises to end the harms of marijuana criminalization, it’s not too late. But until marijuana is completely removed from the CSA, President Biden’s promises to decriminalize marijuana will remain unfulfilled.

Kassandra Frederique is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that works to end the war on drugs—which has disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities—and build alternatives grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.

Cat Packer is the director of drug markets and legal regulation at the Drug Policy Alliance. In this role, she leads DPA’s efforts to replace prohibition with regulatory systems grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.


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