Rattling the Bars: Should Biden legalize weed?

On Oct. 6, President Biden announced an official pardon of anyone incarcerated on federal charges of simple possession of marijuana. Biden framed his pardon in terms of correcting the historic injustices meted out against people of color by the War on Drugs, but is it enough? The pardon itself affects about 6,500 people, but does not necessarily guarantee that every one will have their records expunged. Furthermore, countless other people remain incarcerated, on probation or parole, or with criminal records for cannabis-related charges. To talk more about what else should be done, Rattling the Bars speaks with Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, co-hosts of the The Real News program Police Accountability Report. Stephen and Taya make a case for the full legalization of cannabis, which remains a federal Schedule 1 drug, pointing out that so long as cannabis laws are passed unevenly, it will be the poor and people of color who pay the price.

Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. First let me update y’all on Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway is doing good. Eddie Conway is getting healthcare as we speak. And hopefully, at some point in time, Eddie Conway will be making a cameo appearance at the show that he created, and the network that he loves.

President Biden issued an executive order, pardoning people that were charged with small amounts of marijuana. When he made this observation, or when he made this executive order, he noted that people of color are disproportionately sentenced or arrested for marijuana. And that he noted that the law in and of itself was unjust, and that this was his way of reckoning the injustice.

What we want to talk about today with Taya Graham and Stephen Janis is one, the impact of this decision, and did it go far enough? Introduce yourselves to the Rattling the Bars audience. We’ll start with you this time, Taya.

Taya Graham:  Hi, my name is Taya Graham, and I am the host of the Police Accountability Report. I do investigations into police abuse and misconduct with my colleague Stephen Janis. Thank you for having me.

Mansa Musa:  And Stephen.

Stephen Janis:  Yeah, my name is Stephen Janis. I’m the co-host of the Police Accountability Report with Taya. We cover law enforcement policing across the country and do investigations, and also economic inequality. So thanks for having me. I appreciate it

Mansa Musa:  And I appreciate y’all coming back. Last time we were together, we had a real spirited conversation, and I know this will be the same.

I’m going to start by saying this: I’ve been locked up for 48 years. I got out of prison, and all of this is a culture shock. But the biggest culture shock for me was, I’m walking down a main street corridor in Washington, DC, H Street. H Street is much like Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore.

So I’m walking down H Street and a guy says, do you want to buy some marijuana? This is in a heavily commercial area and heavily populated, people walking back and forth. So I look at them and say like, man, what? I’m thinking… I don’t really know what to think, but I kept on moving. But as I’m walking, I’m talking to a guy that was walking beside me. I said, man, this guy just tried to sell me some marijuana, man. I say, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. He said, man, that’s a dispensary right there.

Which leads me into the conversation. In the District of Columbia, and the decision that President Biden made in pardoning people, it was federal prisoners and District of Columbia citizens. They’re sentenced under DC code. And when DC prisoners are sentenced under DC code, they’re sent to a federal prison. So in pardoning federal prisoners, you’re also pardoning District of Columbia residents. But in the District of Columbia, marijuana is not criminalized. Marijuana is not legalized, but it’s not criminalized. So they had dispensaries throughout the county. We’ll start with you, Steph. Talk about this executive order and what’s your view on it?

Stephen Janis:  Well, I mean, I think it’s the federal government trying to get in line with what the people want. And many states, I think 19 states, have made marijuana legal for adults to consume. And then another dozen or so states have approved medical marijuana. So it’s an effort to start, I think, the conversation about the absurdity of marijuana being illegal.

But I also think it’s a crack in the armor of the war on drugs. Because as you pointed out, marijuana is a Schedule 1 according to the DEA. Schedule 1. And we have to remember that marijuana and the marijuana tax in the Harrison Narcotics Act was one of the reasons that we even have the war on drugs. Because in 1914, one of the first steps of making drugs illegal was to put a tax on hemp or marijuana.

So perhaps what you see here is the federal government finally acknowledging the unbelievable, undeniable racial injustice and civil rights injustice of a system. And I think the psychology that comes with it, which is often ignored. The fact that, for years… Taya and I have done a lot of reporting in Baltimore. And Baltimore disproportionately arrests African Americans for weed. I can talk of many cases, many horrific cases that started with officers smelling marijuana, using it as a pretext to chase a person of color in the neighborhood in Baltimore and ending in disaster. One being near my home where three people were killed in a car accident where police went on a high-speed, 100-mile-per-hour chase over the odor of marijuana.

It has been the calling card of the ability to divide the civil rights of people across this country: Black, white, everyone. It’s been one of the best tools of oppression that I know, and it’s been one of the foundational ridiculous absurdities of the war on drugs, being that it’s a Schedule 1. And Taya can tell you, because she’s used it a lot, that it’s not a Schedule 1. Just kidding. It’s more me. But yeah, maybe this is the first step towards the path of acknowledging how ridiculous this war on drugs has been.

Mansa Musa:  Hey Taya, pick up on this part of the conversation. Because you made a nice observation, Steph, that I think we should flush out: Utilizing marijuana as a pretext to go further. I smell marijuana on the front porch, I use that as a pretext to go search and seizure, extenuating circumstances. Pick up on that, Taya.

Taya Graham:  Absolutely.

Mansa Musa:  In your research and in your line of work.

Taya Graham:  First, I just want to say that I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. This is great that President Biden is doing this. This will affect roughly 6,500 people. I just want to note that a federal pardon isn’t actually an expungement. They’re still going to have to go through that process. And any governor who follows suit is also going to have to make sure that there is a clean way to access people’s records, that they can expunge people’s records, because that charge will still be there.

And if people can still access that, that can affect your employment, that can affect your housing, that can affect you getting financial aid, that can affect you getting any help from the federal government. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that expungement. There’s still other steps in this process.

And I want to say that this is not a cure-all. What Biden is doing is good, but it is just one small step to rectify some of the horror of the past. Part of that was connected to his 1994 Violent Crime Bill –

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

Taya Graham:  …Which led to the mass incarceration of many of the people who are sitting in prison for distributing marijuana, having marijuana, et cetera. This is just one small step to rectify the damage that he previously was part of doing. I appreciate that he’s doing this, but there needs to be a lot more done.

Now, in reference to encouraging other governors to follow suit. I think that is excellent. I think it’s great that the federal government is taking this first step, but it is a baby step. It makes me think of someone that Stephen and I reported on recently. His name is Cody Cecil. He was going from a state where marijuana was legal; He actually worked for a legal cannabis company, I think he was up in Michigan. Went down to West Virginia. And on the pretext of smelling something, the officers wanted to search his trailer. They did not have a search warrant.

And poor Cody Cecil, for having eight Delta-8 hemp plants, eight or nine, he ended up sitting in prison for over a month with $100,000 bail. So the idea that decriminalization is actually happening in various states, it is not even, to say the least. And that’s part of the problem. If Biden is leaving it up to governors in individual states to address this issue, we’re really going to have a problem. Decriminalization is not necessarily working. I mean, in Pennsylvania in 2021, they still arrested over 13,000 people for simple possession of marijuana.

Now under what President Biden’s doing, where if you only have simple possession you’re going to be able to be pardoned, if you had paraphernalia on you, if during your probation you made a mistake and your urinalysis came up dirty, you can’t qualify for it. So this is really limited. I just think people need to know, we need to push for more. This is just the beginning.

Mansa Musa:  I like that articulation. Because when we look at the collateral aspects of this decision… But when I was researching this, one of the reporters made the observation that White House staff, when they were vetted and they did urine tests for marijuana, they were fired under the Biden administration. So we recognize his continuing hypocrisy.

Let’s dial down on what needs to be done. Because we recognize that, one, the common attitude in society is that marijuana is not bad. The common attitude in society is that it’s a recreational drug, much like alcohol. But why didn’t Biden go and make the observation that we want to change the scheduling? Talk about this. Talk about what the scheduling is, Stephen, and how that would impact on the decriminalization and, optimally, legalization.

Stephen Janis:  Well, I think the schedule is the Rosetta Stone of the horrible war. You have heroin and marijuana and other types of very –

Mansa Musa:  Cocaine and crack and other –

Stephen Janis:  Yes, I think cocaine’s actually Schedule 2, to be honest.

Mansa Musa:  Okay.

Stephen Janis:  But what’s amazing about it is that marijuana even made that list, with no medicinal or otherwise research benefits completely put… But the reason I’m a little more hopeful about it is simply because, like I said, marijuana was sort of the entry point for a lot of the worst aspects of the drug war. Because it is such a beneficial plant and it helped so many people, that it became a point of vulnerability where police could attack Black communities, police could attack working-class communities. What needs to be done, obviously, first is removing it from Schedule 1.

But what needs to be done, more importantly, is removing it from the arsenal of our law enforcement-industrial complex. That’s what needs to be done. There should be no way that any cop anywhere in this country can stop someone or have use for a pretext for a search. I mean, we talked about it a little bit. But I’ve read so many statements of probable cause where there is disastrous –

Mansa Musa:  That’s right, that’s right.

Stephen Janis:  I mean it was basically a rewrite. Marijuana laws were a rewrite of the Fourth Amendment to say there is no Fourth Amendment. So many cases that Taya and I have covered start with the pretext of marijuana. I’m hoping that Biden is sending a signal. Now, in our own city, Marilyn Mosby actually said, I’m not going to prosecute marijuana crimes.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. That’s right.

Stephen Janis:  What happened? What happened? The FOP, the police department, and even some people on Twitter attacked her for it. And why would they do that? Because marijuana is the way that they can do whatever they want. It’s like the keys to the kingdom of fascist policing.

So I think what needs to be done, to your question, and sorry to get a little digression there, but I think what needs to be done is get it off… Biden could easily have it removed from Schedule 1. Absolutely eliminate it. And then there’s been efforts in the Senate, which Biden has not supported, the Senate and the House to pass marijuana legalization, which needs to be federally done.

I mean, because a lot of states, as Taya points out, have contradictory laws. I mean, we just covered a couple that was traveling from Illinois to Kentucky. They got pulled over at a stop, at a checkpoint. And they dragged them out of the car. Later on they said, oh, they had a little marijuana. Well, they had bought the marijuana legally in Illinois. Though all the charges were stemming from this marijuana that they didn’t even know was in the car.

It’s got to be one of the worst, most violent characterizations of a natural plant that’s ever existed. But what it has unleashed on the people of this country, especially poor people and in African American communities, is just unbelievable. So yeah, there’s got to be more done. It’s got to be taken off the schedule, and it’s got to be legalized nationally, I think, to just get this out so that no cop can ever do this to anyone ever again.

Taya Graham:  You know –

Mansa Musa:  And Taya –

Taya Graham:  I’m sorry.

Mansa Musa:  Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead, Taya.

Taya Graham:  No, I just wanted to add to that, because I was so glad that Stephen brought up that case where that couple was arrested just for crossing the border checkpoint. Which, we believe the checkpoint was purposefully set up in the hopes of catching people going from a legal marijuana state to one where marijuana was criminalized. I think that checkpoint was set up there very purposefully.

But the thing I was thinking of as you were talking is that with Cody Cecil, one of the reasons why this young man is actually working for a marijuana company is because marijuana helped him get off of opioids. It made this huge difference in this young man’s life.

We know that it can help patients who are going through chemotherapy, we know that marijuana can help people who live with chronic pain. They’re looking into some of the anti-inflammatory aspects of some of the terpenes that are present in marijuana. I mean, this is a drug or a plant, or some people consider it a gift. Because marijuana, as it’s slowly being studied, we’re discovering that there are so many beneficial aspects to it. So the fact that it’s considered Schedule 1 honestly seems absurd, and it’s something that President Biden should immediately move to change.

But one of the things I noticed when Biden announced this, I think he was implying – As a matter of fact, I think he stated it outright – That this effort to inspire other governors to do this was because he thought that this was going to help with systemic racism in our criminal justice system. I can give you one example of why this isn’t the case.

In Pennsylvania in 2021, roughly 13,000 people were arrested for simple possession of marijuana. And when they took a look at the past 10 years, they saw that in the early aughts that an African American male was four times more likely than his white counterpart to be arrested for possession of marijuana. In 2021, it went up to five times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana. And that was after the decriminalization. So I just want to state that to think that this is going to fix the systemic racism that’s baked into our criminal justice system, that’s not what’s happening at all.

Mansa Musa:  And for my own observation, the penalties, like we’re saying, most people wind up in prison for small amounts of marijuana. Most of them wind up in the county jail, can’t pay bail, have an exorbitant bail, can’t pay it. Plead out to a year for civil possession or 90 days in the county jail. And then it is a repeated cycle that ultimately it gets a habitual type of characterization, all because of small amounts of marijuana.

But in terms of the decriminalization and the legalization, well, how do you think this will play into that? Because as you said, Taya, and both of y’all making observations, we’re asking for governors, because we’re not mandating federally. We’re asking for governors throughout the United States of America to come up with an analysis on how to decriminalize it and how to legalize it. What role do you think the federal government should be playing in terms of really being out front on that, that being Congress and the Senate, in addition to the president?

Stephen Janis:  Do you want me to respond?

Mansa Musa:  Well, either of y’all, both of y’all got an answer.

Stephen Janis:  One of the things the federal government has to do, one of the things that’s restraining the legalization is the fact that because it’s still illegal federally, businesses that grow marijuana or that sell legally can’t use the banking system. And that has a great effect on the ability of businesses to distribute marijuana. So that’s the big thing.

Like I said before, there’s been legislation. There’s a lot of support for it in the Senate. You have a Democratic Congress until… Well, we don’t know when, with the midterms. So I think there needs to be fast action now to try to legalize it before, I hate to say it, but I don’t think Republicans will support this. I don’t know for sure. But the point is that the federal government has to act, legalize it, so the banking systems, so these businesses can participate and lead the way. Because it’s the same states, I think, that don’t want to legalize it that are problematic in these issues. Southern states don’t want to legalize it. We need to set a national standard so that people can be safe from this drug war.

Taya Graham:  You know what? I hate to keep picking on West Virginia, where Cody was arrested –

Mansa Musa:  Pick on it, pick on it, pick on it.

Taya Graham:  – But I really do have to. Because the irony is while Cody was sitting in jail; he was arrested two days before Christmas. He’s sitting in there for a month. At the same time he’s sitting in jail with a $100,000 bond, a company is getting a tax subsidy from the state of West Virginia to plant crops to grow marijuana and sell them.

At the same time this young man, who works for a legal marijuana company up in Michigan, had eight or nine plants in his car, sitting incarcerated while a big business is actually getting tax subsidies to grow it in the same state.

So I think what we have to take a look at is the fact that there’s a profit motive underlying here that is going to influence every aspect of this process. And if you don’t believe me, ask former Speaker of the House John Boehner about it. Because he was a politician who spoke out against marijuana legalization. He was a tough-on-crime, tough-on-drugs kind of politician. And now he’s actually actively helping marijuana companies, encouraging people to invest in them.

Mansa Musa:  Right, right.

Taya Graham:  You see how money influences people. In his retirement, that’s what he’s doing. You can look the commercials up online as he’s encouraging you to invest in legal marijuana companies. That tells you the role that money really plays here.

Mansa Musa:  And if this is about undoing the wrong, centuries of oppression and dehumanization of people of color, if this was the intent that President Biden was trying to get out, personally, I don’t think he went far enough. And like you said, it’s a small step.

However, we recognize that, in different states, they are not going to legalize it, and they are not going to decriminalize it. So you’re still going to have the attitude that, I’m going to arrest you for out being in public, smoking a joint. Now I come down on you, I smell it. And depending on what area you’re in, or depending where you’re at, I might even impound your car. I might take it, lock you up, impound your car, and now you don’t have the ability to get out because you can’t raise the bail.

But y’all got the last word, and we’ll start with you, Taya. Where do you think we should be at in terms of nationwide? The national response should be in terms of this whole marijuana situation?

Taya Graham:  So then I get to use my magic wand and just write any sort of piece of legislation I want.

Mansa Musa:  You got it, yeah. President Taya.

Taya Graham:  First off, okay, here’s what President Taya wants. We have to immediately move marijuana, cannabis from being a Schedule 1 drug. We have to slide it right down the ladder. I mean, that’s actually prevented doctors from being able to research some of the ways that marijuana can actually benefit people. We immediately need to change that for the sake of medical research, if nothing else.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

Taya Graham:  Secondly, we need to acknowledge that not all these states are going to be able to legalize marijuana in a timely fashion, or in a way that’s actually going to redress any of the racial disparities in the way sentencing and arrest has been implemented. I hate to say it, but we need the federal government, President Taya, to step in and legalize it across the board. And we need to do a lot more than just essentially pardon people with simple possession.

Because like I said, you could have simple possession. But if you have paraphernalia on you, if you got a resisting arrest charge or an obstructing charge or an interference charge, you don’t qualify. So we have to make that much broader. And there has to be an immediate expungement process in place. Because if that charge is still on your record, it’s still going to prevent you from being able to move forward in your life the way you want to.

We need to have a central database for these types of charges, because that’s part of the problem. There’s no centralized database to look up this information, to make it possible for them to vacate these sentences and do expungements. We need to have a centralized database, we need to make it much broader, and we need to legalize it across the board. We need to catch up with our buddies in Europe. It is insane that it’s taken us this long.

Mansa Musa:  Thank you, President Taya. And incoming President Stephen?

Stephen Janis:  Well, I think we should use this opportunity to deal with something that we talk a lot about on the Police Accountability Report: that marijuana has instituted in our legal system something we call a proximity crime, which is the idea that if you have, or around you, a substance of any sort – And I’m talking about anything.

Taya Graham:  That’s right.

Stephen Janis:  Basically you unlock, unleash the power of government to do just about anything to you, to your person, to your property, to your freedom. And marijuana is [inaudible]. I could dump a bag of marijuana in someone’s house, lawn, and call up the cops, and the cops would have every right to storm in that house, drag the person out, put their property in foreclosure or seizure. I think we have not dealt with the psychological impact of that. That we have said, okay, if someone has a little natural plant in their pocket, a police officer can turn me around, put me in handcuffs, take my property, seize my car, as you said. It’s unbelievable.

It’s really, to me, a shocking, psychologically unrecognized stupidity and arrogance of government, and the damage it has wrought on people’s sense of self, sense of civil rights. The damage it has wrought on Black communities in Baltimore and working-class communities is unfathomable. It is a war that requires some sort of, if not monetary reparations, at least psychological and philosophical.

We have to look at ourselves and say, do we want to have a legal system constructed around this idea that if you have a plant in your possession, then you have abrogated all your civil rights? And that’s exactly what we’ve done. We basically cross out the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth – You name an Amendment – Because of a plant. I mean, come on.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. That’s exactly what it is.

Taya Graham:  He’s a good vice president, isn’t he? He’s a good vice president. I’m proud of him.

Stephen Janis:  200 years from now they’re going to look back on this and say, what the hell was wrong with this country? Our problem? I mean, even if it is an addictive substance, which I don’t think it is, then treat it.

But we have created a whole set of criminal justice procedures, policies, policing around the idea that if you’re proximate to a substance, you have committed a crime and intent doesn’t matter. Nothing matters other than the fact… Then along the way, all your rights can be just tossed out the window. I think it’s absurd. I think it needs to stop. I think we need to eliminate all of this. And I mean for any substance, because it just is so destructive. Take it from me, a reporter who’s seen it on the ground. It is super destructive. So I say get rid of all of it.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The real news about marijuana, as we got it from Taya and Stephen.

First of all, we want to remove it from being a Schedule 1. Second of all, we want to decriminalize it, legalize it. It has a lot of medicinal benefits. It has a lot of recreational benefits. I never seen nobody smoke a joint of marijuana and get in the car and plow down everybody in their sight like I have seen people that drink alcohol –

Stephen Janis:  Absolutely.

Mansa Musa:  …But yet we legalize alcohol. I’ve never seen anybody smoke a joint of marijuana and go in, beat everybody up in the house, spousal abuse. But we know that people with alcoholism do this on the regular. But yet we legalize alcohol, we legalize it, we monetize it, and we get money off of it. And then we recognize, from what y’all just said, that it’s a monetary factor associated with the legalization of it. And ultimately, it will be legalized because of the monetary value.

Thanks both of y’all for coming and joining us.

Stephen Janis:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  And thank you for talking and this spirited conversation.

Taya Graham:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  If I wasn’t on parole or probation, I’d probably fire up a joint right about now.

Taya Graham:  I’d share it with you.

Mansa Musa:  All right, thank you. And there you have it, The Real News. On behalf of Eddie Conway, myself, we ask you to continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars. We look forward to y’all continued support. And thank you very much for everything, all the turnout, all the viewership. We really appreciate it. And keep watching, keep rattling the bars. Thank you.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.