- President Joe Biden announced Thursday he was pardoning federal marijuana possession convictions.
- The action impacts thousands, but past mass pardons have been even greater, experts told Insider.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced he was pardoning all people with federal marijuana possession convictions, a significant move that impacts thousands — but past US presidents have made even larger blanket pardons.
“Pardon power is very little restricted. It’s one of the most unfettered, unconstrained unilateral presidential powers that there is. And, to my mind, is often underutilized,” Graham G. Dodds, a professor of political science at Concordia University and author of “Mass Pardons in America: Rebellion, Presidential Amnesty, and Reconciliation,” told Insider.
“Ever since Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, it’s something that presidents have shied away from, feeling there’d be political backlash for a liberal use of it,” he said. “But in days of yore, it was used much more often.”
In fact, mass pardons are almost as old as the US itself. President George Washington pardoned the leaders of the Whisky Rebellion, a violent uprising in the 1790s, and President Thomas Jefferson pardoned people convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the government to deport noncitizens and restricted speech, Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin University, told Insider.
But experts in presidential pardons told Insider Biden’s announcement on Thursday was nevertheless significant. Officials said the action would impact 6,500 people who were convicted of simple marijuana possession at the federal level from 1992 to 2021, as well as an estimated thousands more who were convicted in Washington, DC.
“Obama issued about 1,700 commutations, based largely on what he deemed overly long sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug crimes, but it wasn’t the complete set of all such people,” Rudalevige said, adding that perhaps the largest blanket pardon in modern memory was issued by former President Jimmy Carter.
In January 1977, Carter granted a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to any person who violated the Selective Service Act, AKA the draft, from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. The pardon applied to all potential draft dodgers, including those accused and convicted, as well as those who had fled the country.
It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of men evaded the draft during the Vietnam War, and the US continued to prosecute draft dodgers even after the war ended. Tens of thousands of men were formally accused of draft dodging, while nearly 9,000 were convicted and 3,250 were jailed. An estimated 100,000 men fled the country, mostly to Canada, to avoid getting sent to war. Carter’s controversial and unconditional pardon applied to them all.
A century earlier, another president issued a sweeping mass pardon to tens of thousands of men accused of treason. On Christmas Day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a full pardon to all soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Johnson, who rose to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, said the pardon would “renew and fully restore confidence and fraternal feeling among the whole, and their respect for and attachment to the national [e.g., federal] government, designed by its patriotic founders for the general good.”
The public today often thinks of pardons as being issued in individual cases, particularly toward the end of a president’s time in office. Dodds, whose book examines the history of mass pardons after rebellions and insurrections, said there is ample historical precedent of presidents using blanket pardons in the name of political reconciliation.
But he said mass pardons generally have been issued for mercy — when a president feels a punishment was inappropriate or too harsh. He also noted mass pardons have typically been unpopular with the public, but that the evolution of Americans’ feelings about marijuana could make this one different.