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Biden’s federal action dispels ‘taboo’ around marijuana

Chelsea Higgs Wise is interviewed on camera. She is wearing large hoop earrings and a necklace with colorful crystals.
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Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise advocates for marijuana legalization and aims to address damage done by the war on drugs to Black and Latino communities.

President Joe Biden recently announced pardons for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents with a federal conviction for simple possession of marijuana. He also asked federal officials to review how marijuana is classified. 

Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I substance, the same as heroin and LSD; federal law considers it more dangerous than fentanyl. 

Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise told VPM News that the president’s decision allows Virginians to move forward, dispelling the taboo around marijuana. 

“It means that more people that are curious about using marijuana, consuming marijuana or understanding that this is not something that should be criminalized, can now come out and participate in this movement,” said Higgs Wise, whose organization advocates for marijuana legalization and aims to address damage done by the war on drugs to Black and Latino communities. 

Higgs Wise said that while Biden’s acknowledgement of the issue excited her, it also made her take a step back and think about how many people would benefit from the pardons. 

Higgs Wise noted that people without permanent legal status who were convicted of simple possession will not be pardoned. According to CNN, 72% of people charged with federal possession between fiscal years 2015 and 2021 were noncitizens, though that data also includes people who are permanent legal residents. 

From Higgs Wise’s perspective, Biden’s decision is the result of grassroots organizing.  

“This announcement really shows that the pressure will work, and that he understands that the voters are also watching for midterms,” Higgs Wise said. “It looks like Biden really took that step forward and really came out of his shell since the 1994 crime bill and said, 'OK, it's time to go forward on marijuana.’” 

In Virginia, the reclassification of marijuana could mean wider legalization, resulting in changes for citizens and local law enforcement. A spokesperson for Gov. Glenn Youngkin said his administration is reviewing Biden’s executive action, which also called on governors to pardon people convicted of simple possession in their state. 

When it comes to marijuana, Chesterfield County Police Chief Col. Jeffrey S. Katz said the laws are complicated. 

“It becomes confusing for members of our community to determine whether or not they're following the law. It becomes confusing, as well, for those of us who are responsible for enforcing the law as written to make good decisions with incomplete information in those murky conditions,” Katz said. 

To combat the confusion, Katz said Chesterfield police are actively informing their community about what is legal and what is still illegal. 

While Biden’s pardons won’t directly affect their work, Katz said, it does signal to the public that they live and operate in a shifting society. 

“Policing is one of those professions that requires that the work that we do be reflective of the will of our citizens and our community,” he said. “[It’s] not up for me as a police chief to say, ‘I do think that there are some behavioral outputs associated with the legalization or efforts to legalize marijuana that are concerning from a public policy standpoint.’”  

Higgs Wise said that declassification of marijuana would be a progressive move.  

“[It] would really be the only way to ensure that these criminal penalties that are coming from small amounts of marijuana aren't going to continue to impact those that are Black, Latino, Indigenous, poor people, as we've seen marijuana crimes do for the last 50 years,” Higgs Wise said. 

Marijuana Justice has created a downloadable list of the state’s laws. Download it here in English and Spanish. 

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