Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on October 21, 2022.
President Biden recently announced that he would pardon all those who faced federal convictions for simple marijuana possession, and he further announced that he would release anyone who was in prison simply for that offense.
On one hand, the announcement is meaningless. Since no one was in federal prison only for simple marijuana possession, not one single person will be released by the president’s pardon. On the other hand, President Biden’s decision signals a significant shift in the way he and the federal government are treating marijuana.
As recently as last year President Biden was criticized by the left for his opposition to the legalization of marijuana. Does this represent the next phase in the evolution of Joe Biden, just before yet another election?
The Biden administration claims the decision will help 6,500 people who have been convicted since 1992. The argument has long been made that drug possession laws are little more than a way to harass people who are otherwise minding their own business. Former Drug Czar Bill Bennett sees it differently. In an Op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Bennett said, “Once we see the full criminal and sentencing records of the new policy’s 6,500 supposed beneficiaries, it will wreck the narrative that they were simply minding their own business and harming no one when the feds came crashing in their front doors.”
While Biden’s pardon policy does not legalize marijuana, it is clearly a step in that direction. Only a decade ago, marijuana was illegal everywhere in the United States. Now, more than 19 states have legalized it, which means we don’t have to guess about the consequences if the federal government and other states continue the trend of decriminalization.
According to the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, states that have legalized pot have experienced higher rates of driving fatalities, more emergency department visits, and hospitalizations from marijuana. When marijuana is legal, it leads to more accidental cannabis exposure as well. California, Massachusetts, and Washington all legalized marijuana and each state saw more than 100 percent increases in marijuana related calls to the poison control center. States that have legalized marijuana saw the number of daily users among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders increase more than 25 percent. Likewise, they have seen a 25 percent increase in 12–17-year-olds with Cannabis Use Disorder.
A primary benefit from regulating and taxing marijuana is additional tax revenues. Arizona’s revenues exceeded expectations in their first year after legalization while other states have seen revenues fail expectations because in many states the black market for marijuana is larger than its legal market.
But even if states’ tax coffers aren’t profiting, someone is. Cannabis sales in the United States increased 40 percent in 2021 to $25 billion, which coincided with an 8 percent decline in cigarette sales during the same year. Not coincidentally, the same people who were once running the tobacco industry have simply joined the marijuana industry, which forces us to consider whether marijuana is actually as innocuous as they would have us believe or whether we are being fooled again by those with a financial motive to fool us.
In 2000, just over 30 percent of Americans supported legalization but last year, a Gallup poll found support from 68 percent of Americans, including 83 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans. The partisan gap on the issue provides a clue as to why. It is not a coincidence that marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the ability to declare your own gender all became popular at roughly the same time. In nearly every way, we have become a culture that elevates the importance of personal autonomy and is happy to accept devastating future consequences in exchange for the promise of immediate happiness. Our national debt, as well as our social policies, prove this point.
On a list of national problems, legalizing marijuana is not at the top. Prohibition against beverage alcohol did not work and not everything that is harmful should be illegal. Therefore, we should continue a discussion about the right way to discourage harmful behavior.
Still, the growing openness to recreational marijuana despite our knowledge of the consequences, and our willingness to adopt policies that are certain to increase usage—even among children—is a problem. If President Biden is taking us on the path toward decriminalization, the social costs are inevitable. In that case, President Biden may one day be the one begging the pardon of future generations.