AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas leaders and advocates responded to President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that he would issue pardons for thousands of Americans with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana.
The announcement also calls on state governors to issue similar pardons at a state level, and for the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Health and Human Services to review the enforcement schedule of marijuana.
The pardons do not apply to other marijuana-related or other controlled substance offenses or to “non-citizens not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offense,” according to the proclamation.
Jax James, executive director for Texas NORML, a marijuana advocacy group, said the announcement is a step in the right direction.
“This will have a direct impact on many Americans. They’ve been living with the collateral consequences of these charges, and those can be very heavy and burdensome,” James said. “For the rest of your life, you can have trouble getting grants for schooling, renting an apartment, getting certain types of jobs. It’s an important thing that we stop saddling Texans with limitations to employment, education, etc., due to policy that really needs to be updated.”
In Texas, misdemeanor possession of less than two ounces of cannabis (referred in state statute as “Marihuana”) can lead to 180 days in prison and a $2,000 fine. In May, 85% of Austin voters approved a ballot measure to prevent the Austin Police Department from charging residents with possession, effectively decriminalizing the drug within city limits.
“Gov. Abbott in the past has supported the idea that no one should be in jail for a small amount of marijuana. He has said that on the campaign trail, and he has in the past had support for different legislation that would reduce the penalties surrounding the small amounts of possession of cannabis,” James said.
James said she is hopeful Abbott will issue pardons and lend support to legalization bills. However, a statement from Abbott’s office pushed back against Biden’s call for state-level pardons.
“Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals,” said Renae Eze, spokesperson for the governor’s office. “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.”
The office did not say whether it would support lowering the schedule for marijuana to below fentanyl. Abbott claimed in a recent tweet “Texas law enforcement has seized enough fentanyl to kill every American.” It is unclear how such a determination was reached.
Texas NORML advocates for the complete de-scheduling of marijuana as a controlled substance.
“I think everyone understands that it being at a schedule one is just really outrageous at this point. It’s not backed by science. It’s not backed by the vast majority of the laws across our country,” James said. “Part of being a schedule one drug is the assertation that there is no medical benefit. There are 10s of 1000s of patients in this state that are currently enrolled in a medical cannabis program and finding the benefits from that plant.”
In July, Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller, called for the expansion of medical marijuana and legalization.
“As I look back, I believe that cannabis prohibition came from a place of fear, not from medical science or the analysis of social harm. Sadly, the roots of this came from a history of racism, classism, and a large central government with an authoritarian desire to control others. It is as anti-American in its origins as could be imaginable,” wrote Miller in an open letter.
Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke issued a brief response supporting Biden’s announcement.
“When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession,” O’Rourke said.