Marijuana Pardon Program Falls Flat in Pennsylvania

It has already been over two months since President Biden promised to pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. The nationwide pardon has impacted more than 6,000 people. Biden has since then urged governors across the nation to follow suit, encouraging them to issue pardons in their respective states actively.

While some states have been very successful in granting pardons, others have seen their initiative stunted for various reasons. That is the case for Oregon and Pennsylvania, two states with large numbers of citizens that had applied to get the convictions cleared from their records, but with vastly contrasting results.

Pennsylvania Fails To Deliver Its Promises

Pennsylvania’s administration and Board of Pardons (BOP) previously boasted of having received many submissions after the launch of their pardon program, with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) claiming this to be an opportunity to let citizens clear their records from simple cannabis possession. Out of over 3,500 clemency applications submitted to the pardon program, as little as 231 were considered by state officials over the course of a month.

Some issues were reported in late October, preventing the authorities from adequately carrying out the pardon initiative. Given those issues, the BOP voted to keep these applications on hold until partnering agencies carried out a review to assess the eligibility of the applicants’ requests correctly.

Unfortunately for the applicants and the state, the review process resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of expected issued pardons. PennLive reported that the BOP has denied an additional 2,002 applicants due to “not meeting the requirements of the project.”

According to BOP Secretary Celeste Trusty, the commission considers “quite a few folks who entered the wrong data” on their applications. These applicants may have done so unintentionally by giving the wrong docket number for their cannabis case or by making other little mistakes on the online form.

The biggest hurdle in this project lies in the fact that recreational adult use of marijuana remains illegal in Pennsylvania. Although several cities within the state have decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis, the current classification of the plant (Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act) prevents the governor from issuing unilateral pardons. This compels institutions like the BOP to go through several lengthy administrative processes.

PennLive was informed by Emily Demsey, the governor’s deputy press secretary. “It is the hope of Governor Wolf that the next administration will continue working to improve this process and give people with these offenses their rightful clean slates, until marijuana becomes legal in Pennsylvania.”

PennLive was informed by Emily Demsey, the governor's deputy press secretary

Oregon Pardons Thousands Of Americans

Where Pennsylvania failed, Oregon succeeded, with incredible numbers to boot. Around the middle of November, Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown (D), issued a mass pardon. This pardon relieved roughly 45,000 people, just a month after Biden’s pardon for federal possession offenses, which he celebrated on social media, claiming other states should “follow Oregon’s example.”

Brown’s cannabis clemency program forgives over $14 million in state-issued fines and fees for all those eligible. While pardons typically don’t provide as much relief as expungements, Brown would aim to work with the Oregon Judicial Department and courts to seal any relevant possession records.

“Oregonians should never face housing insecurity, employment barriers, and educational obstacles as a result of doing something that is now completely legal, and has been for years. My pardon will remove these hardships,” said Governor Brown in a news release. Brown’s office has since identified 47,144 convictions for possession of cannabis (up to one ounce), all having taken place before 2016, which will be effectively cleared from the records of 45,000 people.

These changes will significantly affect the pardoned individuals, who will no longer be denied housing, employment or education—a vastly different result from Pennsylvania’s attempt at a state-wide pardon. The sheer number of estimated relief beneficiaries points out a very evident flaw within our system: most cannabis-related convictions occur at the state level, which the President has no control over.

Despite Biden’s encouraging words celebrating Oregon’s success, many governors across the United States are voicing their concerns with the presidential directives, each claiming they have little power and authority over state restrictions. Evidently, in a state where the recreational use of marijuana is legal, mass pardon actions are made possible.

Despite Biden's encouraging words celebrating Oregon's success

Oregon legalized the use of recreational marijuana back in 2014, enabling them to effectively issue pardons, unlike Pennsylvania, where it is still illegal.

As progressive as these initiatives seem, they are unreliable solutions. We must first act toward the total decriminalization of marijuana possession. States, where the recreational use of cannabis is legal, have an easier time pardoning federal offenses related to cannabis possession.

These completely blindside non-citizens or immigrants, as these people still face charges or prison time despite having committed the same now pardonable offenses. More than 130 organizations are urging president Biden, through a letter sent in early November, to extend his pardon to immigrants, undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylees alike.

It is safe to assume that these changes will hardly occur as long as cannabis remains a Schedule I drug.

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