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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 at least 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 directly answer whether he would pursue pardons for Texas convictions.
In a statement, Abbott’s spokesperson criticized the Democratic party for some of its members’ stances on criminal justice issues and said Texas is “not in the habit” of taking advice from the Biden administration.
Abbott has previously expressed support for reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
At a campaign event in Edinburg in January, Abbott said he believes “prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”
“The Governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon,” Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a statement.
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.
Jax James, the executive director of Texas NORML, which seeks to decriminalize responsible use of cannabis by adults and patients, said in a statement, “I am happy to see President Biden fulfill a campaign promise that will positively impact the lives of Texans who have been living with the collateral consequences.”
James expressed hope that top GOP leaders in Texas — like Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who has regularly signaled support for reducing penalties for marijuana possession — would act on Biden’s announcement.
Biden argued the reason for his decision, just under a month ahead of the November midterms, was the undue burden simple marijuana possession charges put on Americans. Thirty-seven states in the nation have legalized medical marijuana.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said in a statement.
Biden noted that marijuana possession charges have historically targeted communities of color.
“And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said.
Pamela Metzger, a law professor and director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that while Biden’s pardon is a step in the right direction, it’s a small step. And while the pardons are crucial for those with federal possession convictions, not many Texans will benefit.
“Imagine what Gov. Abbott could do with the size and scale of marijuana possession in Texas,” Metzger said.
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.
“Every minute a police officer is spent booking someone for marijuana possession is a minute they could be doing something else,” Metzger said. She speculated that most people don’t want prosecutors sending time on simple marijuana possession charges either.
She added that those who have a marijuana possession conviction face significant burdens that make it more difficult to participate in society, like getting a job or securing housing.
“In many ways, this is an argument for smaller government,” Metzger said. “What does our government owe to people? It owes us the right to be left alone.”
In addition to the federal pardon, Biden asked for a review of marijuana’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act. Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which is the same classification for LSD and heroin.
James also reaffirmed the importance of reclassifying marijuana.
“Texas has affirmed that it has medical value through the Texas Compassionate Use Program that serves patients with qualifying conditions,” James said.
Jolie McCullough and Patrick Svitek contributed to this story.
Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.