By Hemish Naidoo
On Oct. 6, 2022, President Joseph R. Biden officially announced that he would pardon all individuals in the United States who have been prosecuted and convicted of marijuana possession strictly under federal law. The pardon would extend to anyone convicted of the crime since marijuana possession became illegal in the 1970s. The number of those affected by the pardon is significantly large, with White House officials estimating that 6,500 American citizens were convicted of marijuana possession between 1992 and 2021, not including legal residents, aliens or those convicted according to the District of Columbia’s drug possession laws.
Aside from its short-term results, President Biden’s marijuana pardon is symbolic of changing attitudes toward marijuana usage within the nation. In the United States, 20 states have already fully legalized marajuana, such as Washington, Oregon and California, with many others having made their marijuana laws much more lenient, per the Defense Information Systems Agency. Furthermore, prominent Democratic senators such as Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were vocal advocates of these pardons for months, strongly encouraging President Biden to carry them out. It is crucial to note that these shifts in attitude that are becoming highly politically consequential are strongly social driven as well.
When asked, some at Adelphi University shared their own responses to these changes. Stephanie Lake, a director of both sociology and the criminal justice program at Adelphi’s College of Arts and Sciences, said, “What is known is that societal-level shifts in attitudes in the US has led to increased usage among all age groups, both in states that have decriminalized possession and those that have not. As students of criminal justice can tell you, informal sanctions (including peer group, family and societal attitudes and disapproval) serve to better influence individual behavior than formal ones (e.g., law and fear of punishment).”
She added that laws criminalizing marijuana seem to have had little effect in halting the popularity of cannabis over the recent years. At the same time, the ramifications of prosecuting those for simple marijuana possession has led to instability in the lives of many, in addition to a lack of focus on how to truly solve the issue.
“Much more will have to be done at the executive and legislative levels to address the devastation left in the wake of the decades-long failure many refer to as ‘The War on Drugs,’” Lake said. “By finally injecting some level of sanity (and proportionality) to the issue of social harm wrought by substances like marijuana, billions spent hunting down and warehousing individuals convicted of possessing or using a substance most Americans believe should be decriminalized can be redirected to science-guided research and programs that have shown far more success in abuse prevention and intervention.”
In fact, the stigmatization of marijuana due to drug laws has disrupted the lives of students even at Adelphi. Alisha Horne, a senior studio arts major at Adelphi who has Crohn's disease, shared how she’s been treated by the university.
“Chronic pain had been my best friend for five years… I was at my dorm and I was caught with weed in my dorm,” Horne said. “The consequence of that was being barred from any form of being an RA. I was mandated to do six months of therapy for my ‘drug addiction’ where, in reality, I was having a mental health crisis… This persecution made me feel criminalized and shunned. The next semester I actually didn’t dorm because I did not feel comfortable. I used that time to try and get accommodations and Adelphi still refused.”
Horne’s treatment because of her marijuana possession echoes the sentiment shared by Lake, that using laws as a means to restrict marijuana usage only ignores the possibilities of exploring other, more fruitful treatments, like the appropriate mental health counseling and accommodations that Horne was denied.
Additionally, Sentwali Bakari, the vice president for student affairs at Adelphi University, clarified that Adelphi’s strict drug and alcohol policy will remain static even after President Biden’s pardons, in accordance with standing federal laws. He said: “Applicable Federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic and prohibits possession of marijuana on the campus of any institution that receives Federal funds, including student financial aid. A pardon from the President of the United States or other government official for a prior conviction under Federal or State law would not necessarily trigger a review of our Code of Conduct, which addresses student behavior and has no impact on a student's conduct history.”
Bakari said for these reasons, Adelphi's policy regarding drugs has not changed and continues to cover the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensing, possession or improper use of any illicit or prescription drugs.
“Our Code of Conduct also includes intoxication, regardless of substance, anywhere on Adelphi’s campuses or at any Adelphi activities,” he said, adding that the university has an Office of University Health and Wellness for those that need a more personalized approach to mental health treatment.