Joe Biden has spent nearly two years in office, and his presidential tenure is characterized largely by inaction, unfulfilled promises, and blaming policy failures on the GOP. Biden’s actions regarding cannabis specifically have been lackluster – his campaign promises are faltering, and marijuana advocates are beginning to lose hope for actionable change from the Biden administration.
One of President Joe Biden’s (and the Democrats at large) campaign promises was the full legalization of cannabis, and with that came the proposition to free currently incarcerated individuals held on marijuana charges. However, in nearly two years as acting president, no moves have been made to free those unjustly imprisoned.
“I don’t think anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana,” Biden said in response to a question from The New York Post’s Steven Nelson. “We’re working on the crime bill now,” the president added, though there is no indication that this bill is actually being drafted.
White House press staff did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for clarification.
While Biden did grant clemency to 78 individuals, over 40,000 remain imprisoned. Half of all drug arrests are marijuana charges, and over 10 million Americans have been arrested for cannabis over the past two decades.
The campaign promises of Democrats have convinced the population that there will be leftist action in government, that they’ll stand up to the GOP, and that they are the best solution for Americans seeking to make positive changes – yet, the past two years of Biden’s presidency have done literally nothing to actualize those promises. Democrats control the House and Senate, and the president of the United States himself is a Democrat, yet conservative ideologies underpin every political action taken by our so-called “leftist representatives.”
Biden has the ability to pardon marijuana offenses and grant clemency to incarcerated individuals, but he won’t. Instead, he and the rest of the Democrats will continue to make flimsy promises and refuse to act on them while blaming the GOP for the country’s descent into conservatism and milking money from their party constituents. The Democrats had the ability to codify Roe v Wade and did not. They have the ability to legalize cannabis but will not. President Joe Biden has the power to free everyone imprisoned on cannabis charges, but instead would prefer to pretend that the GOP is blocking his efforts.
The Democrats are purposefully complacent when it comes to freeing cannabis prisoners because, despite trying to market themselves as a left-wing alternative to the GOP, they are just as invested in maintaining the carceral state and cannot risk its dissolution.
Punishment And Politics
One of the main governing institutions in the United States is the carceral state, and this was pushed largely thanks to 20th-century Democrats. Contrary to common belief, law and order have been a primary, not ancillary, concern in national and municipal politics for a significant portion of US history. The structure and supporting fictions of the American social order, in general, have been impacted by conflicts over penal policy and punishment, carrying “important and lasting consequences.”
American political elites have a long history of bringing up law-and-order issues in order to further their own political careers. Before crime rates started to rise, in the mid-1950s, conservative congressional Democrats began to strategically use the subject of street crime. Democrats cleverly utilized civil rights legislation as a means of enlarging and strengthening criminal sanctions. These add-ons to civil rights legislation tested a number of penalties that later became the centerpieces of the major federal and state-level crime bills of the 1980s and 1990s, such as strict mandatory minimum sentences, the denial of federal benefits to those convicted of certain felonies, and sentencing enhancements for offenses with ambiguous and broad definitions, like rioting.
While serving under his brother, Robert F. Kennedy used his position as attorney general to exploit crime “as no administration had since the first Roosevelt term,” propelling it to the forefront of the national agenda. When running for president in 1968, he cited declining personal standards as the cause of the increase in crime in order to win over white voters and dispel the idea that he was “the black people’s candidate.”
The much-lauded “liberal” voices in American political culture may have influenced how severe, humiliating, and unforgiving the US correctional system is, and the Democrats played a massive role in creating such a system.
Biden’s campaign promise to grant clemency to those imprisoned on cannabis charges is demonstrably incongruent with Democratic policies on crime and punishment. Freeing cannabis convicts would also completely decimate the prison labor force.
Prisoners And Profit
Since at least the late 19th century, prison labor has played a major role in the American economy. It is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with inmates working on everything from staffing contact centers to creating 3D models and constructing office furniture.
However, there is still a lack of knowledge about this sector. Official employment statistics do not include inmates as employees. It can be challenging to determine the exact size of this sector of the economy because there is inadequate research on the subject. This is likely on purpose because those who own the prisons (and therefore prison labor) benefit immensely from keeping this information hidden.
Biden, like all Democrats, is in bed with the prisons and is hugely invested in the carceral state. Nearly 20% of the prison population is incarcerated for cannabis charges. Biden knew before even campaigning that he could never pardon close to one-fifth of this multi-billion dollar labor force without facing extreme consequences from investors and the party itself. While Democrats aren’t nearly as embedded with for-profit prisons as the GOP is, Democratic candidates still receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from organizations like the GEO Group.
While Biden did sign an executive order intended to phase out the Department of Justice’s use of for-profit prisons in 2021, it was largely symbolic, as states still have the ability to write contracts with anyone they choose. This also ignores the fact that public prisons generate profit as well.
“When it comes to private prisons, the impact of this order is going to be slight to none,” said John Pfaff, a professor of law at the Fordham University School of Law. “This is not about shrinking the footprint of the federal prison system, it’s just about transferring people to public facilities. Biden is telling an executive agency under his control what kind of contracts they can enter, that’s a core executive function of Biden’s. In practice, this will end up being more symbolic and will have little impact on any issue of racial justice and the system. The symbolism carries the very real risk of making us blind to the nearly identical incentives of the public prison sector, and the public side is so much vaster in scope.”
Biden’s tenure as President has ultimately been characterized by shallow and ineffective actions. He and the Democratic Party have allowed the GOP to bulldoze federal politics despite controlling the House and the Senate, and it seems like this laziness will remain crystallized in the Democratic zeitgeist for years to come.
Democrats have a history of campaigning on leftist policies, gaining support from Americans who genuinely want to effect change and create a better nation for all, and then winning the seats and playing directly into the GOP’s hands.
Biden’s lip-service is not enough to convince us that any meaningful change will come from him or his administration. The future of cannabis and the prison population faces an even greater threat if the next election swings right, leaving Biden with limited time to actualize his campaign promises. Hopefully, he will follow through and free the millions of people unjustly imprisoned. However, it’s likely that actionable changes will be delayed or possibly even thwarted following the results of the upcoming Senate election.
Biden needs to act now, and the Democrats need to follow through on their promises because their votes depend on it.
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