Presidential Pardons, Prisons and Pot Profits: No Room For Incremental Justice

Biden’s attempt to overhaul marijuana laws just doesn’t go far enough


Read the article in The Philadelphia Inquirer

President Biden’s announcement to pardon federal convictions for marijuana possession and call to remove Cannabis from Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substance Act did little more than virtue-signal a change of heart after a political career marked by complicity in the War on Drugs. 

Even the most staunch advocates for the War on Drugs can have a change of heart. Biden’s actions are not cause for celebration. 

Decriminalizing simple possession and reviewing the schedule doesn’t necessarily mean that people will not face future criminal charges for marijuana. Federal Law could complicate the current legal medical or adult-use programs. Now is not the time for incremental justice.

Now the window of opportunity to encourage legislation that will right the wrongs of Jim Crow policies, to prioritize social equity opportunities for farmers and entrepreneurs and to prevent corporate monopolies from depriving Pennsylvanians of the benefits of a thriving rural-urban cannabis economy.

With 78% of Americans in favor of marijuana legalization, public opinion on the failure of the War on Drugs offers a unique opportunity for equity and justice but it will require much more bold action than a gesture like a federal pardon that fails to free those incarcerated. 

The War on Drugs has had the most damaging impact on Black and Brown communities. There is no room for incremental justice in righting the wrongs of the past 50 years of excessively punitive anti-drug legislation, mass incarceration and militarization of local police forces. 

In 2020 alone, there were 20,200 arrests for marijuana possession. A record of conviction has lifelong social and economic impacts, leading to instability in employment and housing. Incarceration as well as services for housing and food insecurity are costly to taxpayers. 

Presumably well intended, Biden’s actions fail to actually free those incarcerated for those charges, provide adequate resources for their reentry into society or recognize the impact that incarceration has had on marginalized communities. Now is no time for incremental justice. 

This is an opportunity, if not a moral imperative, for Pennsylvania’s legislature to dismantle the prison pipeline and enact restorative justice policies that invest in the communities that have been ground zero for the war on drugs. Records need to be expunged and arrests restricted to more serious crimes to minimize the collateral consequences of prior marijuana convictions. 

Thirty seven state legislatures, legalizing cannabis either as medicinal, adult-use or both, have taken up the gauntlet, but Pennsylvania is lagging on its moral responsibility to address the multi-generational trauma of disenfranchised communities that lies squarely at the feet of our Representatives and Senators.

With a projected $2.5 billion in cannabis industry revenue, PA legislators are looking for legalization but, if they are just chasing the profits leaking across our borders, we will miss a unique opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. 

Righting the wrongs will take the establishment of a cannabis regulatory framework that distributes the tax revenue back to the communities it harmed by establishing social equity programs that provide grants, education and support for disenfranchised entrepreneurs and disadvantaged farmers. 

We have an opportunity to unite rural farms and urban businesses, resulting in a huge economic boon that would help local economies thrive through job creation and protection of small farmers. The worsening farm consolidation trend makes the PA agricultural sector of the cannabis industry ripe for multi-state domination. Farmers with smaller homesteads and little capital will find it difficult to compete. So, while Pennsylvanians could benefit from this economic boon, without legislative protections for small farms and businesses, profits will go out of state. 

Adult-use cannabis legislation that incorporates social and economic equity policies must also reach across party lines and have a broad base of support. Local small farmers and small business owners need to build a supply chain that builds upon the experience of the legacy markets without the stigma previously attached by criminalization. 

Special attention in the legislation needs to prevent economic concentration and multi-state domination of cannabis markets so that the revenue can stay in state and build stronger local economies that keep pot profits in Pennsylvania

Now is the time for transformative justice.


Tara M Zrinski, Campaign Director, Pot Profits for Pennsylvanians, All Together Now Pennsylvania

Cherron Perry-Thomas, Director of Social Impact, Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities (DACO) & Founder of Black Cannabis Week