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Local district attorney, criminal defense lawyer react to Biden's pardon for 'simple possession' of marijuana

Biden kept this campaign promise he made in 2020 to expunge federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana.

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of people charged with federal simple possession of marijuana in a decision announced Thursday.

The executive action will affect more than 6,500 people with federal convictions between 1991 and 2021. Biden called on governors to issue similar pardons on the state level.

Gov. Brian Kemp's office issued a statement to 11Alive's Dawn White regarding the delegation of power that the governor has in these decisions.

"The Georgia Constitution does not empower the governor to pardon, that is solely left to the Board of Pardons and Paroles," his office said.

Biden kept this campaign promise he made in 2020 to expunge federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana. 

Georgia Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzales said she was happy when she finally heard the announcement had been made. That's because Gonzalez prioritizes only serious felony crimes in her office.

“We certainly are going to make decisions on priority," Gonzalez said. "What's more important? To go after a murderer or rapists or a child abuser or to go after someone who's smoking a joint?” 

Gonzalez believes simple marijuana possession, meaning that someone has a small amount of the drug without the intent to sell it, disproportionally affects people of color.  

“Many times this simple possession may be just a misdemeanor or a very low-level type of felony, nonviolent," Gonzalez said. "They might be offered a pretrial diversion program, but even those programs may require a fine or a fee to get into them.”

Criminal defense attorney and Emory University law professor Lynsey Barron wants people to understand the president's action won't affect state or county charges, saying that Biden only has federal authority.

“I don't see the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles acting in any manner differently than they have in the past, simply because the president has chosen to issue this decision," Barron said.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles spokesperson Steve Hayes sent 11Alive the following statement:

"The Georgia Parole Board has a pardon process that allows for people convicted of a felony to apply. Each application is thoroughly investigated. Those who meet the Board's criteria and have been a law-abiding citizen may be granted a pardon. Please visit our website and review our information under the clemency menu tab. We also have statistics in our annual reports. Pardons in Georgia do not expunge a criminal record. The Parole Board does not have expungement authority."

Gonzalez said the Georgia Legislature could also take up the matter.

11Alive received the following statement from the U.S. Justice Department:

“The Justice Department will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense. In coming days, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will begin implementing a process to provide impacted individuals with certificates of pardon.

“Also, in accordance with the President’s directive, Justice Department officials will work with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services as they launch a scientific review of how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

You can read Biden's full proclamation by clicking here


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