Many still waiting for promised marijuana pardons 6 months later

Biden issued a sweeping pardon that was supposed to take effect immediately, but those with federal charges say they don't have official records.
Posted at 12:45 PM, Apr 20, 2023

Chris Goldstein was convicted on federal marijuana possession charges in Philadelphia after smoking a joint in a federal park while protesting for weed decriminalization in 2013.

"I went out to protest to end federal prohibition and I ended up with a federal marijuana record," Goldstein said. 

While smoking marijuana has been decriminalized in most states, for Goldstein, and thousands of others with federal charges for simple marijuana possession, their criminal records have been a burden on their lives. 

"This is something that shows up on every criminal background check, whether it's for an apartment or a sports team, or a job. And the strange thing about it is, they're not going to see, like in my case, they won't see that it's for a half gram of marijuana. They'll just basically see that I have a federal drug conviction," Goldstein said. 

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But last October, President Biden made an announcement to lift that weight, issuing a sweeping pardon for the over 6,500 Americans federally charged for marijuana possession. 

"No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," the president said in a video unveiling his executive order. 

The pardons were supposed to take effect immediately, but now, six months later, Goldstein says he has no record that his crimes were forgiven. 

"One of the problems with pardons — even when granted automatically — is proving to somebody that's reviewing your record that you have been pardoned for a specific conviction. And without a certificate, there's really no way to do that," said Morgan Fox, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

It was only last month that the Justice Department published an online application for a certificate of pardon.  

The Justice Department did not respond to a Scripps News request to know how many people have applied for or been granted a certificate. 

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In addition to the federal pardons, the president is also calling on governors to issue pardons for people convicted of state marijuana offenses.


Criminal justice reform advocates say it should be the government's responsibility to issue the certificates automatically, or at least notify people who are eligible. 

Advocates also worry that the process, which requires specific case documentation, may be too cumbersome for some people. 

"You might not have access to a computer or to the resources you need to an attorney; English might not be your first language; and, of course, you might not know you're eligible. This is a huge part of the problem," said Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project

Goldstein says he's still waiting for his certificate. But that's just the first step for him. 

"I'll have to literally, quite literally, walk around with the pardon certificate in my pocket in situations where I think I'll need it," he said. 

Having the certificate explains the charge on a person’s record, but it doesn’t wipe it away. Advocates say expungement needs to be the next step, but that will require action from Congress.

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chris Goldstein was charged with a felony. Goldstein was charged with a federal misdemeanor. The story has been updated.