For years, elected leaders have called for the decriminalization of adult marijuana use. These proposals call for the legalization of marijuana possession and support for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who are struggling to find employment because of a criminal record consisting solely of a year-long marijuana conviction.
Those calls were met with a deadlock in Harrisburg as a new bill failed to pass the committee. In a few weeks, the terms of office of three officers who hold the key to second chances for people bearing the burden of previous marijuana convictions will end: the governor, the lieutenant governor and the attorney general. These three, plus the three appointed members of the Parolees Board — corrections expert Harris Gubernick, psychiatrist John Williams, and victims advocate Marsha Grayson — have the power to forgive previous marijuana convictions and let these Pennsylvanians begin to rebuild their lives.
The parole board and the governor must take action — not just for those with criminal records, but for all of Pennsylvania.
In recent years, states have begun to decriminalize possession of marijuana, and evidence continues to mount that marijuana is no more a “gateway drug” than alcohol. But Pennsylvania continues to accuse and convict people of marijuana-related offenses. A staggering 243,287 indictments were filed over the past decade for the two lowest-level offenses — “possession of marijuana” and “marijuana, minor personal use.”
Pennsylvania continues to accuse and convict people of marijuana-related offenses.
In September 2019, the Parolees Board announced a special program to expedite pardons for marijuana-related crimes that did not involve violence. “Minor offenses should not carry a life sentence,” Gov. Tom Wolf said at the time. Expediting pardons for these cases, he said, “is the right thing to do.”
As of August 23, 2022 (the latest data released by the board), only 373 people have been recommended a pardon under the marijuana expedited review program. That’s 373 in three years.
Last September, Wolf announced another program: The PA Marijuana Pardon Project, which allowed people with certain nonviolent marijuana beliefs to apply online for a pardon before September 30 if they were adversely affected by a minor marijuana offense,” Wolf said in a statement .
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The program generated around 3,500 applications, but that number does not represent 3,500 people because separate applications are required for each qualifying conviction. And while that may sound like a lot, in the last decade alone, there have been 51,604 convictions for just those two minor crimes — “possession of marijuana” and “marijuana, small amount for personal use.”
By requiring individuals to submit one application at a time, it leaves out the low-income communities that have been hardest hit by the war on drugs. Despite estimates that 1 in 6 Philadelphia households do not have high-speed Internet access, the application was only available online and the application portal itself required not only a smartphone but also a computer. Of the thousands of applications, only 197 came from people whose beliefs were based in Philadelphia.
If Wolf is truly serious about doing whatever he can to help the people of Pennsylvania unjustly disadvantaged by our War on Drugs, he needs to issue a general pardon for people with petty marijuana crimes. There is no need to make individual applications or review individual files: a sheet of paper and a signature are required for a general pardon.
Last month, President Joe Biden issued a similar blanket pardon for people convicted by the federal government of marijuana possession, and he urged governors across the country to do the same The same applies to persons convicted of state offences. Oregon’s governor answered the call just this week, granting pardons to about 45,000 people with prior convictions of simple marijuana possession.
Wolf has the ability to grant general pardons — my organization, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, recently commissioned a legal memorandum confirming this. First, the parole board must make a recommendation after a public hearing, but the final decision rests with the governor.
The governor should request that the parole board hold a public hearing to consider the idea of a general pardon for those with criminal records related to low-level marijuana offenses so that he can issue his general pardon.
Wolf only has a few weeks left in office. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians will instantly benefit from just one signature on a piece of paper. What are we waiting for?
Renee Chenault Fattah is executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity.