On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order establishing equity as a key policy commitment of his administration. However, despite routinely characterizing marijuana reform as an opportunity to advance equity, the administration failed to include cannabis in its numerous equity efforts until October 2022. At that point, more than a year and a half into his presidency, Biden announced new steps to address what he called a “failed approach to marijuana.” He said cannabis convictions produce “needless barriers” to opportunities like employment, housing, and education, and he acknowledged that “while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
In the months since, the Biden administration has regularly noted the disparate impact of marijuana criminalization on Black and Latino communities, and the president has highlighted his actions on cannabis reform as a key part of his equity efforts. However, despite Biden’s boilerplate acknowledgments of inequities associated with cannabis criminalization, marijuana reform has been omitted from his administration’s Equity Action Plans, which are foundational to the administration’s goal of advancing equity across all federal policies and programs.
The omission represents a missed opportunity to address the disparate impact of federal marijuana laws on underserved communities — a disparity that Biden himself frequently acknowledges. It undermines the administration’s stated goal of using the power of the executive branch to comprehensively advance equity across the federal government and it stymies efforts of advocates for effective and equitable cannabis regulation at the local, state, and federal level.
This paper briefly reviews Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’s histories on marijuana reform, as well as the administration’s positions on cannabis prior to taking up the subject in late 2022. It then argues that cannabis reform ought to be included under the administration’s efforts to comprehensively pursue equitable policies at the federal level, specifically through the use of Equity Action Plans.
The paper also identifies tangible steps the Biden administration could take to develop an Equity Action Plan for marijuana reform, including the collection and reporting of data, consultation with underserved communities, and assessment of harms associated with cannabis criminalization. It concludes by considering additional actions necessary for the Biden administration to fulfill its promises on marijuana reform. These measures would help ensure that, when federal agencies are next required to submit