President Biden pardons federal marijuana charges, calls on governors to follow suit

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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President Joe Biden pardoned thousands with federal marijuana convictions across the United States on Thursday, and now he is urging governors across the country to follow suit at the state level — because the pardons don’t apply to those charged under local or state law, including Kentucky.

Biden also said he would review how the drug is scheduled under federal law. Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, which is in the same class as LSD and Heroin.

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said Thursday. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

The pardons wipe away federal charges of simple marijuana possession. In a press conference, Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz said more than 6,500 people convicted between 1991 and 2021 will be affected by the pardons.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said.

With Biden calling on governors across the country to take similar action, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s administration said he agreed with the president’s assessment that nobody should be in jail for simply possessing marijuana.

“The Governor agrees that no one should be in jail simply because of possession of marijuana,” said Scottie Ellis, Beshear’s deputy communications director, in a statement to LINK nky.

But, the White House had not alerted or briefed the governor’s office on precisely what his pardons may require and the specific details of what they will and will not cover, Ellis said.

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“The Governor looks forward to reviewing those details when available in his larger analysis on medical cannabis and how to move forward when the vast majority of Kentuckians demand it,” Ellis said.

State Representative Nima Kulkarni of Louisville, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky State Conference of the NAACP, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Kentucky NORML and the Kentucky Cannabis Freedom Coalition have urged Beshear to align with Biden on the pardoning.

“As advocates who have long championed such a move, we urge Governor Andy Beshear to take similar action here in Kentucky. This would immediately help more than 7,000 of our citizens, many of whom are people of color. Despite clear evidence showing cannabis usage among races is largely the same, minorities are still four times more likely to be arrested nationally, and 10 times more likely in Kentucky, which is a travesty. Such a broad state pardon – which the Kentucky Supreme Court has upheld as legal in principle – would better balance the scales of justice while effectively stopping future prosecutions,” said Kulkarni.

In June, Beshear issued an executive order to form a 17-member medical cannabis committee to solicit feedback from citizens across the state after the legislature again failed to pass any recreational or medical cannabis reform.

The committee has been holding town-hall-style meetings in all parts of the state. Beshear selected members with relevant experience regarding drug use, including opioid use disorder and addiction. He also chose those familiar with advocating for medical marijuana and law enforcement and criminal justice professionals.

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One of those members is Northern Kentucky University professor Alex Kreit, who created the Chase Center on Addiction Law & Policy in 2020 at the Chase College of Law at NKU. He is an expert on illegal drugs and marijuana law and was on the San Diego Medical Marijuana Task Force.   

The committee listened to testimony at the university in July from proponents and opponents of medical marijuana.

Bracken County High School teacher Erin Conley told that group that cannabis provided relief for her 14-year-old epileptic son.

“Cannabis doesn’t come with a ginormous list of side effects like the ones I just listed,” Conley said. “What it does come with is an opportunity for my son and other children like him, children who suffer at the hands of those who refuse to see the healing qualities of a plant created by a God that I worship every single day in my life.”

Beshear’s administration released data that showed that 90 percent of Kentuckians are in favor of medical cannabis. Kerry Harvey, co-chair of the committee and secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said the group didn’t hear any negative feedback.

“Everyone who spoke supported legalizing medical cannabis in Kentucky,” Harvey said.

But, at the forum at NKU, there was feedback that said there needs to be oversight of medical cannabis. Rose, a nurse practitioner from Kenton County, said that she supports medical cannabis for some conditions, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. She wants oversight, so doctors are not “rubber-stamping” cards for medical marijuana. She cited the abuse of opioids as an example for her concern. (LINK nky could only gather Rose’s first name during the meeting.)

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“It’s all about money,” Rose said, noting that some doctors will easily hand out the cards to get medical cannabis.

“I hope that this commission would put into place some type of oversight of the clinics or the dispensaries, so it just doesn’t become a rubber [stamp] state,” she added.

Republican lawmakers have also questioned Beshear’s ability to take any executive action, which Beshear suggested he might do if the legislature continues to fail at passing any meaningful reform.

“The public should be concerned with a governor who thinks he can change statute by executive order,” said Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) in April. “He simply can’t legalize medical marijuana by executive order; you can’t supersede a statute by executive order because it’s a Constitutional separation of powers violation.”

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