Transcript: “Background Press Call on Marijuana Reform”

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/10/06/background-press-call-on-marijuana-reform/

2:48 P.M. EDT

MR. MUNOZ:  All right.  Hi, everybody.  This is Kevin Munoz.  Thank you for joining today’s press call on short notice.

As a reminder, this call will be on background, attributable to “senior administration officials,” and it will be embargoed until 3:01 p.m. Eastern.  We will also have a few embargoed materials in the next couple of minutes that will be embargoed at the same time.

On today’s call, we have [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].  And with that, I will hand it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Kevin.  Hello, everyone.  Thanks for being with us.  Today, the President will announce in a video and statement that he is taking steps to end our failed approach to marijuana.

As he has often said, no one should be in jail for marijuana use or possession alone.  It has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that is legal in many states.  And while white, Black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are disproportionately in jail for it.

Members of Congress have been working on this issue with one significant bill passing the House, but that effort has stalled, and we are almost at the end of this Congress.

So, today, the President is taking executive action to address the country’s failed approach to marijuana.  He will announce three steps.

One, the President is pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession.  This pardon applies to all persons convicted of simple possession of marijuana under District of Columbia law as well.

There are thousands of people with prior federal convictions for marijuana possession who may be denied housing, employment, or educational opportunities as a result.  This pardon will help relieve those collateral consequences.

The President has directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process to issue certificates of pardon to eligible individuals.

Second, the President is urging all governors to do the same with regard to state offenses of simple possession of marijuana.  Just as no one should be in federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or a state prison for that reason either.

Third, the President is asking the Secretary of HHS and the Attorney General to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.  Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act as the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and it’s even higher than the classification for fentanyl and methamphetamine — the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.

And the President will make clear today that even as federal and state marijuana law changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and underage sales should stay in place.

With that, I’ll open it up for questions.

MR. MUNOZ:  All right, thank you.  First question, let’s go to Chris Megerian at the Associated Press.

Q    Hi, everybody.  Can you say specifically what charges are being pardoned?  What are the actual categories of charges?  And will they take place immediately?  So, do people get — or will they be released from prison immediately?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, the category — this is [senior administration official].  The category of charges are for “simple possession” of marijuana, and that is both under federal law and the D.C. code.  There is a particular statute.

In terms of the administration of the pardons, the Justice Department will create an administrative process for pardoned individuals to obtain a certificate of pardon so that they will have documentation that they can show to law enforcement employers and others as needed.

MR. MUNOZ:  All right, let’s go to Kaitlan Collins at CNN.

Q    Thanks so much for doing this.  Two questions.  One, how many people do you estimate will be affected by this?  And, two, can you speak to why you’re doing this now and the timing behind it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We estimate that over 6,500 people with prior federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana and thousands of such convictions under D.C. law could benefit from this relief.

As [senior administration official] said, the pardon will relieve barriers to opportunity that these marijuana possession convictions have posed for years to housing, educational opportunities, and employment.

And this is important, as the vast — and also, you know, we can’t do it alone.  The President is calling on governors to take this action as well.  This is important, as the vast majority of marijuana possession convictions are state convictions.

This is something that the President has talked about, and he is — he is following through on his campaign commitment.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I’ll just add on the question about timing: I mean, the President has been clear that our marijuana laws are not working.

As I mentioned up top, members of Congress have been working on this issue, but that effort has stalled, and we’re almost at the end of the Congress.  So the President has been considering his options, and he’s now taking executive action to address the country’s failed approach to marijuana.

I’ll also just note that today’s pardons build on the President’s historic grants of clemency in April when he announced 75 commutations and three pardons, which was an earlier exercise of the clemency power than each of the five presidents who preceded him.  So at that time, he said that he would take further action on clemency, and today he has.

MR. MUNOZ:  Thank you.  Let’s go to Nancy Cordes at CBS.

Q    Thank you.  So, my question is: You mentioned that this is going to affect thousands of people.  Can you be any more specific about how many people are serving time for federal marijuana possession?  You know, any figures on how many people are going to be affected here.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so we know that over 6,500 U.S. citizens over — from 1992 to 2021 were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.  And as we said, there are thousands of more who were convicted or (inaudible) from — under D.C. code.

So there are no individuals currently in federal prison solely for simple possession of marijuana.  And again, the President is calling on governors to take this action as well, because it’s important because most of the marijuana possession convictions are happening at the state level.

MR. MUNOZ:  All right, let’s go to Nate Weixel at The Hill.

Q    Hi, thanks for taking my question.  I’m just looking for some more information on the timing of de-scheduling.  You know, you said the HHS Secretary is going to review expeditiously.  Is there a deadline to make a decision?  And how quickly are you looking to do that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, and let me just emphasize: The President is asking him to undertake a review, not to de-schedule or any particular schedule.  He has asked him to undertake the review to assess where — what — how marijuana should be classified.

In terms of the time, the process will take some time because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientifical — scientific and medical information that’s available.

That said, the President is calling on the Secretary of HHS and the AG to conduct the review expeditiously.  This is meant to proceed swiftly.  But, you know, this has to be a serious and considerate review of the available evidence.  So, he’s not setting an artificial timeline, but he is saying this needs to be expeditious.

MR. MUNOZ:  Let’s go to Eugene Daniels at Politico.

Q    Hey there, everyone.  Thanks for doing this.  My question is: If, you know, the de-scheduling is going to take a long time or take some time, what happens to the people who are arrested tomorrow for these same crimes?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  [Senior administration official], I guess I can start on this, if you want to jump in though.

The pardon applies to anyone who’s committed the offense of simple possession of marijuana.  So, anyone who has committed that offense could not be prosecuted federally, at this point, based on that conduct.

[Senior administration official], anything you want to add?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would add — look, there is a proclamation and it is as of today’s date.  So, if the conduct occurred prior to today, then that would — even if the person has not been charged or convicted, the pardon does cover that conduct.  So, I will add that.

MR. MUNOZ:  All right, let’s go to Kelly O’Donnell at NBC.

Q    Hi there.  Can you hear me?  Yes, thank you so much.  For a policy matter of this significance, is there a reason why the President is doing this on video?  And has he had any direct contact with any specific clemency requests from people who might benefit from this directly?  And when I say “on video,” I mean a video you’re handing out and not an event where the press could ask him questions about this.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  [Senior administration official], do you want to take that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I don’t have an answer to — I don’t have any — there’s no — I don’t think anything should be drawn from the fact that it’s — it’s a video as opposed to some other context.

This is an important announcement.  It’s important that it be widely disseminated.  He wants to speak directly to the American people, and this is going to be distributed widely.  This is a significant development, and it is — or significant announcement that delivers on the President’s campaign commitments.

MR. MUNOZ:  Yes, of course.  I know, obviously, we’ll maintain significant reach on social channels, which is important for this announcement.

Last question, let’s go to Malaika Jabali at Essence Magazine.

Q    Hi there.  So, according to the announcement, he’s going to be working with governors on urging them to also review this pardon policy in their own states.  What does that process look like?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Again, right now he is calling on governors to follow his lead.  In terms of the next steps, those have not been — we have nothing further to say at this point.  But part of calling on governors is because a lot of the convictions are being driven at the state level.

MR. MUNOZ:  All right.  Well, thank you, everybody, for joining us.

A reminder this call embargo will be lifted in one minute.  So, thank you.  Bye.

3:00 P.M. EDT

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