Why this New York Congress member wants President Biden to pardon some individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis crimes

Congress Member Dan Goldman
Rep. Dan Goldman.
Photo by Dean Moses

U.S. Congress members from New York and two other states are urging President Joe Biden to grant clemency to anyone incarcerated in federal prison for non-violent cannabis offenses — citing benefits for not only those who are released, but communities across the country. 

U.S. Congress Member Dan Goldman (D-Manhattan and Brooklyn) is leading the charge locally. In a letter penned in collaboration with Congress Members Barbara Lee of California and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Goldman mentioned the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvested and Expungement (MORE) Act introduced in 2021 that would, among other things, expunge the convictions related to federal cannabis offenses and impose an excise tax on cannabis products produced in or imported into the United States. 

The MORE Act is one of many federal cannabis reform bills being looked at by Congress. The bill, if passed, would create Small Business Administration loans and services available to entities that are “cannabis-related legitimate businesses or service providers.”

“Following the public’s lead, the U.S. House of Representatives twice passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act to ensure that these programs work as intended and the revenue generated can be reinvested into the communities most harmed under criminalization,” the letter states. “The bill also provides for resentencing and expungement of marijuana offenses.”

New York legalized recreational marijuana in 2021. New Yorkers with previous marijuana convictions are among the first to get state licenses to sell the drug. Taxes from those sales go into a NYS Cannabis Revenue Fund helps support services within the state including education and community revitalization efforts such as housing and job placement services, according to New York State official documents

In addition to generating tax revenue from legalized sales, the Congress members also said in their letter that pardoning federal marijuana offenses would help close the gap on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

For decades, unfair cannabis policies have led to unjust incarcerations and worsened racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with people of color representing a disproportionate rate of marijuana arrests,” the letter states. “The continuation of the outdated cannabis prohibition would represent a miscarriage of justice impacting all Americans.”

In a statement to amNew York Metro, Goldman underscored how he feels expunging prior non-violent pot convictions will help families. 

“We now know that the decades of criminalizing marijuana did nothing to keep us safer but shattered the lives of far too many families,” Goldman said. “While Congress works to fully decriminalize marijuana and expunge prior convictions, we urge President Biden to extend clemency to the Americans whose lives were upended by non-violent marijuana convictions. It’s time to give them the second chance they deserve.”

What New Yorkers are saying

Legalizing pot and pardoning cannabis convictions is an issue that has some communities divided across the country. In New York, many people see the benefits of pardoning federal or state marijuana offenses while others are more skeptical. 

Joe Portelle of Staten Island said all “non-violent drug offenders should be pardoned,” not just those who are incarcerated for breaking marijuana laws.

“I think it would help the city save money by not having a person locked up,” he said. “It will reduce the overcrowded prison system.”

He also spoke about the benefits for local families and curbing drug use.

“It helps the community because families will be reunited. It can help stop the generational abuse of drugs,” Portelle said. 

New Yorker Robert Witterschein agrees pardoning these offenses can help the state. 

“They haven’t committed a crime against another person,” he said. “Even though I disagree with drug use, if someone isn’t harming anyone, we should not throw them in a cage and ruin their life.”

But Percy Pitzer, a former prison warden who also runs the Pitzer Family Education Foundation, a national organization that helps former inmates get back into society, said he has never seen anyone in federal prison merely for possession of marijuana. 

“I’ve seen a number of people in prison for bringing semi-loads in through Mexico or boatloads through Miami, but that’s a different story. I wouldn’t agree that you should pardon people like that,” Pitzer said.