Utah woman grateful for marijuana pardon, but knows others aren’t as fortunate

President Joe Biden’s pardons for thousands of Americans convicted of possessing marijuana don’t apply to state charges or many immigrants at risk of deportation.

(Tracy Nguyen | The New York Times) Valerie Schultz at her home in Los Angeles on Oct. 29, 2022. Schultz said she was thankful for the president's pardon, but was mindful that many more nonviolent drug offenders remained in prison.

Washington • Valerie Schultz’s conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2010 was anything but simple.

Schultz was arrested on federal land, the Mount Olympus Trail in Utah, which means she was charged under federal law.

President Joe Biden’s decision last month to pardon thousands of people who had been convicted of marijuana possession under federal law was an acknowledgment that his administration does not see possession of cannabis, with no intent to sell or distribute, as a public safety threat.

But people like Schultz represent just a sliver of those swept up in the decadeslong war on drugs. A majority of marijuana convictions have been state crimes, which Biden does not have the authority to pardon.

And while many advocates welcomed the presidential act of forgiveness, they say far too many people — many of them Black and Latino — are not eligible for the pardons.

More than 55% of the 7,800 citizens and legal permanent residents convicted of federal marijuana possession from 1992 to 2021 were Black or Hispanic, according to data released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Most of the prosecutions for the drug have occurred in California, Arizona and Texas. Nearly 150 people were sentenced in the federal prison system for marijuana possession in the 2021 fiscal year, while more than 1,000 offenders were sentenced for trafficking marijuana, according to the commission.

Legal permanent residents — people with green cards — were covered by the president’s pardons. But they left out many immigrants at risk of deportation because of marijuana convictions.

Some governors took notice: Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat, last week announced pardons for state charges of simple marijuana possession before 2016, when marijuana was legalized in Oregon.

Still, Republicans have seized on the president’s decision to portray him as weak on law and order. And several Republican governors have already rejected the president’s advice.

Biden also directed federal agencies to review whether marijuana should remain classified as a Schedule 1 drug — the same legal category as heroin and LSD. Advocates argue that changing the classification could encourage lawmakers to lighten the criminal penalties for marijuana-related crimes.

Biden’s aides say those who are not eligible for pardons under the current order can apply for one through the Justice Department’s normal clemency process — a case-by-case system the president used to commute the sentences of 75 drug offenders this year.