Biden's Marijuana Pardons Unlikely to Make Big Midterm Splash

The announcement Thursday by President Joe Biden on reforming marijuana policy on a federal level is the fulfillment of a campaign promise that should have occurred sooner, one Democratic strategist told Newsweek.

Biden's plan includes pardons for those convicted of simple possession under current federal laws, as well as a reclassification of marijuana from its current Schedule I designation—the same designation given to drugs such as heroin and LSD.

Amani Wells-Onyioha, operations director at Sole Strategies, told Newsweek she's glad Biden is treading forward with a safe, common-sense political strategy that should have been done previously—even by executive action, which she says hasn't been utilized to its full potential on other issues.

It may not be enough to sway midterm voters, however.

"I'm happy that he's doing it, but again the timing of it and how inactive he was in his first two years in office...he's trying to make sure he's secure in 2024," Wells-Onyioha said.

A Morning Consult/Politico poll on federal marijuana legalization released the day before Biden's tweeted announcement showed 71 percent support by Democrats and 61 percent by independents, and almost 50 percent of Republicans.

In total, three in five voters said marijuana should be legalized nationally. Support exceeds a minimum of 58 percent among voters of all races and ethnicities, with baby boomers representing the age group least inclined to support such legislation.

"[Biden's] doing things that won't get him too much backlash on either end," Wells-Onyioha said. "Let's be honest, everyone smokes weed on both sides....I'm hoping this is the first step in a much bigger step to makeover the criminal justice system."

Marijuana Joe Biden Pardons Legalization
President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a new directive to reform marijuana laws on a federal level, including pardons for small possession convictions and a reclassification of the drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Democratic strategists are split on the impact this could have in November. iStock/Getty Images

Pardons would positively affect people of color more than anyone.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports that even as whites and African Americans consume marijuana at roughly the same rates, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Newsweek on Thursday that he predicts a "long slog" for the federal government to provide clarity regarding pardons.

Democratic strategists like Jim Messina, former campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012, tweeted that this directive is "a BFD [big f**king deal.]"

Carly Cooperman, a senior strategist to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and an advocate for progressive policies, told Newsweek that the directive could impact elections in November.

"Biden is hoping his announcement will help energize the Democratic base in the final weeks leading up to the midterm elections," Cooperman said. "His decision to pardon thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law—pushed for by advocates for months—could well boost Democrats in the upcoming elections; in particular, mobilizing young people, liberals, and minorities.

"Polling shows that about two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, yet the issue has barely been discussed by campaigns this year. Biden's announcement will generally be well received by voters."

Wells-Onyioha said she hopes the federal push will encourage governor pardons, but that a better methodology moving forward would include the passing of federal legislation to overrule sentences.

Democratic governors and those in current races applauded Biden's announcement, while Republicans such as Geoff Diehl, the GOP nominee for Massachusetts governor, called it "outrageous" and pandering.

The idea of reclassification is a step in the right direction, Wells-Onyioha said, but is somewhat "milquetoast" language. Decriminalization and legalization of marijuana are two separate things.

"Perhaps [Biden's] scared of the 'legalization' term, which may be why he is going about it the way that he is....I hope he moves to a stronger language," she said. "Strong things are happening, women's rights are being taken away. Republicans are using strong language [on issues like LGBTQ rights]. We kind of need Democrats to mirror that in the positive direction."

The Drug Policy Alliance concurs.

"We hope that the Biden administration will go further and fully deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, rather than initiate a process that could lead to rescheduling," the Alliance said Thursday in a statement. "Keeping marijuana on the federal drug schedule will mean people will continue to face criminal charges for marijuana. It also means that research will continue to be inhibited and state-level markets will be at odds with federal law."

Wells-Onyioha said the current election cycle shows how powerful state governorships and legislatures are.

"The Democratic Party has to care more about smaller races," she said. "Republicans are packing school boards, state houses. They know that politics kind of trickles up than trickles down. Everything you see locally happens in federal races.

"It's going to take more of a robust effort and just of a more thoroughly strategic plan on behalf of the [Democratic] Party up and down the ballot."