Oct 10, 2022

Biden's mass pardons.

Plus, a question about JD Vance and Ohio.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering Biden's announcement of a wave of pardons. Plus, a question about state residency and running for office, and an update on the investigation into the Trump-Russia investigation.


In our Friday edition midterm primer, I mentioned that Evan McMullin — the former Republican turned independent candidate in Utah — was planning to caucus with Democrats if he were elected. In fact, McMullin said he was not planning to caucus with Democrats or Republicans if he were elected.

This is our 69th correction in Tangle's 166-week history and our first correction since October 6th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Quick hits.

  1. The Uvalde, Texas, school district announced the suspension of its entire district police force five months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. (The suspensions)
  2. A bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula with mainland Russia was damaged and partially collapsed after a blast analysts believe was coordinated by the Ukrainian intelligence service. Three people were reported dead. Russia responded by bombing Kyiv and other major cities. (The latest)
  3. State-run TV in Iran was momentarily hacked by protesters, who projected images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei amid flames and with crosshairs over his face. Protesters have been clashing with police after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in the custody of morality police for not covering her hair properly. (The hack)
  4. North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles in response to U.S.-Korean drills. It was the seventh such launch in recent days. (The launch)
  5. New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency over the approximately 17,000 asylum seekers who have been bussed to the city from border states. Adams hopes the declaration will allow the city to build emergency response and relief centers. (The announcement)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Biden's marijuana pardons. On Thursday, in a surprise announcement, President Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession. He also announced a plan to review whether cannabis should continue to be in the same legal category as drugs like heroin and LSD.

Reminder: A pardon is a kind of legal forgiveness issued by a president, but it is not the same as expungement, which wipes something from a person's record. Pardons can reinstate the rights of individuals such as the right to vote, hold office or sit on a jury.

With the pardons, anyone convicted on a federal charge of simple possession will be cleared of that charge. Currently, possession of marijuana can be punished under federal law with up to one year in prison and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. About 6,500 people have been convicted of federal charges of simple possession since 1992, according to data cited by the White House. The pardons also affect anyone who was convicted in Washington D.C., which could be an additional few thousand citizens.

Since there are currently no people serving time in federal prison solely for marijuana possession, the pardons won't free anyone from prison, but they will make it easier for those convicted of federal marijuana crimes to get jobs, housing, and federal benefits, as well as apply to college.

Biden’s proclamation comes after Republicans and Democrats in Congress who support decriminalizing cannabis failed to come to an agreement on legislation. The pardons will not apply to anyone convicted of selling or distributing marijuana. 19 states in the U.S. and Washington D.C. have now legalized recreational cannabis use to some degree, while 38 have legalized medical cannabis. About two thirds of all Americans support legalization.

Since the people convicted on state charges of marijuana possession drastically outnumber those convicted on federal charges, Biden urged governors to follow his lead.

“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states,” Biden said on Twitter. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right these wrongs.”

Although about 6,500 people (not including those arrested in Washington D.C.) will be pardoned, the vast majority of people incarcerated on or charged with drug crimes are unaffected. About 400,000 people are currently incarcerated on drug charges in the U.S. Approximately 67,000 of them are federal prisoners. In 2019, around 1.5 million people were arrested on drug charges, and 545,000 of which were marijuana offenses. About 500,000 of those were for simple possession. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that over 14 million people have cannabis-related criminal records at the state or local level.

Biden's announcement is another indication of the marked change in his position on the drug. As a senator, Biden helped pass a string of laws that led to mass incarceration, including the 1994 crime bill.

Today, we're going to look at some reactions to the pardons from the left and right, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on the move, with some warning it will worsen crime and others saying it will have a modest impact at best.
  • Some argue that with crime soaring, Biden is sending the wrong signal on drug use.
  • Others say that Biden is reminding Republicans he can still flex his power even if he loses Congress.

In The Wall Street Journal, William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn argued that the pardons will drive crime higher.

"If President Biden had really wanted to do something about the problems facing our cities and states—rising crime, addiction and overdose deaths—he might have done something to prevent illegal drug use," they wrote. "Instead, he chose to minimize the dangers of drug use by granting pardons for criminals convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. In so doing, Mr. Biden has sent the country the wrong signal at the wrong time. At best the claim that the federal government is upending lives for simple pot possession is a straw man. At worst it’s dishonest. White House officials claim the policy will affect 6,500 people with marijuana possession convictions reaching back to 1992. But even they had to admit on Friday that 'no one is currently serving time in federal prison solely for the crime of simple marijuana possession.'

"The Biden administration is wrong if it thinks the federal government has been overreacting to illegal marijuana use. In fact, it is underreacting. Illegal drug use is a catalyst for crime, which has been rising even as states around the country have liberalized their marijuana laws. The president should use his bully pulpit to prevent illegal drug use, not excuse it," they said. "Marijuana isn’t the benign, nonaddictive cure-all it is often held out to be. As the Journal’s Allysia Finley put it in a June column, 'A study last year found that young people with such mood disorders as depression who were also addicted to pot were 3.2 times more likely to commit self-harm and die of homicide—often after initiating violence—than those who weren’t.' That’s bad news."

In Reason Magazine, Jacob Sullum called the pardons "long overdue" but said they will have a "modest impact."

"His blanket pardon for low-level marijuana offenders, while long overdue, will affect a small percentage of people with federal drug records," Sullum wrote. "Without new legislation, marijuana use will remain a crime under federal law, as will growing and selling marijuana. And while rescheduling marijuana will make medical research easier, it will not make cannabis legally available to patients unless and until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves specific products as safe and effective.... Biden's concern about the ancillary penalties associated with marijuana convictions and the racially disproportionate impact of the war on weed is welcome.

"So is his willingness to use his plenary clemency powers to address those problems. But nearly all low-level marijuana cases are prosecuted under state law, and his pardons will have no impact on those," Sullum said. "Biden urged governors to 'pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses,' which would have a much broader effect but depends on their discretion... The moral logic of Biden's distinction between simple possession and other marijuana offenses is hard to follow. He says using marijuana should not be treated as a crime. If so, how can helping people use marijuana justify sending anyone to prison? And why should people convicted of assisting cannabis consumption be saddled with felony records for the rest of their lives?"

In The New York Sun, Dean Karayanis said the move was a reminder Biden will remain a "force" in Washington even if Democrats lose Congress.

"'Simple possession' covers individuals caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use," Karayanis wrote. "Some of those convicted may have pled down to the charge and the pardon is a blunt tool to free them all, but that’s deep in the weeds of the issue — weeds where Republicans are now forced to fight. For all the talk of Mr. Biden’s lame-duck status if a red wave delivers the House and Senate in November, the presidency will remain a co-equal branch invested with powers such as the pardon that ensure he’ll remain a force to be reckoned with in Washington... Young voters who support recreational marijuana will be energized by the move as they were by Mr. Biden’s student loan forgiveness, which — because of its dubious legal standing — he’s been forced to shrink, but only after scoring that PR coup.

"So, Republicans are again left scrambling for a response. They can object on the grounds of law and order, trying to turn the Democratic mantra that 'nobody is above the law' against them, and they’ll be right... Citing Mr. Biden’s concerns as recently as the 2020 Democratic primaries that marijuana is a gateway drug — at a time when over 100,000 Americans are dying every year from fentanyl overdoses alone — could land a blow, but after 50 years of Cheech & Chong, pot is no longer seen as the evil weed of 'Reefer Madness,'" he wrote. "Mr. Biden can count on the press and a Democratic base sympathetic to marijuana use heralding his move as the latter. Republican objections will just harsh their mellow; they’ll be the narcs bucking a compassionate commander-in-chief. Thursday’s pardons are a reminder that even if Republicans take Congress, the president will still have the tools to smoke them."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is supportive of the move, though many say it doesn't go far enough.
  • Some argue that it's a good first step toward legalizing cannabis completely and clearing the records of other offenders.
  • Others say it won't do enough to reverse the racial disparity in the criminalization of cannabis and drug crimes in general.

The Washington Post editorial board said it hopes the move boosts the effort to decriminalize marijuana.

"It is not hard to detect the political calculation behind a decision likely to appeal to — and motivate — the young voters who could be key to Democrats winning. Yet it was also the right thing to do. Simple marijuana possession does not pose a serious threat to public safety, and users should not be hauled into the criminal justice system," the board said. "In addition to his pardons of thousands of people with federal misdemeanor convictions for simple possession (not sale or distribution) of marijuana, Mr. Biden ordered a review of whether marijuana should continue to be classified as a Schedule I substance, the same category as heroin and LSD.

"Opinion polls show that majorities of Americans favor releasing people imprisoned solely on marijuana-related charges and legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use," the board added. "States have taken notice: Nineteen states and the D.C. have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use, and 38 have legalized it for medical use. Five states, including Maryland, have legalization measures on their November ballots. Marijuana use is a public health challenge that the criminal justice system cannot solve — and should not be asked to. We hope Mr. Biden’s move advances the shift away from criminalization."

In MSNBC, Nayyera Haq said the move still doesn't undo racist drug arrest disparities.

"In one year, only 92 people were sentenced in federal prison for marijuana possession. The vast majority of drug-related federal prosecutions are for sale or trafficking, which has yet to be addressed," Haq said. "Most people arrested for pot aren’t taken in by federal agents, so policing and economic disparities remain highly localized issues. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, local police make more arrests for marijuana ‘than for all other violent crimes combined.’ At the county level, in this era of booming marijuana businesses, Black people are still nearly 50 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana-related crime.

"Here is the buzzkill about Biden’s limited federal action and review period. It promises a future where marijuana use is normalized and regulated, where weed is a commodity bought and sold like any other," Haq wrote. "But there is no suggestion of leveling the playing field by providing restitution for time spent in prison or helping minority communities grow legitimate cannabis businesses. Democrats in the Senate unveiled their wholesale marijuana reform approach in July, but the bill is on a long list behind other progressive priorities, such as voting rights and abortion protections. Presidential pardons don’t correct the racial inequity of drug enforcement policy, or the emerging imbalance where 81% of legal marijuana business owners are white."

In Rolling Stone, Miles Klee noted that conservatives are hardly phoning in their dissatisfaction with the announcement.

"Perhaps because the nation overwhelmingly believes that cannabis should be legal, and the issue doesn’t stoke the culture war like matters of race, gender, and sexuality, the right-wing outrage machine had a mostly quiet reaction to these executive orders," Klee said. "Indeed, over the past year or so, several high-profile Republicans have actively pushed similar efforts. In May 2021, Rep. Dave Joyce and Rep. Don Young, of Ohio and Alaska, proposed to take cannabis off the federal list of controlled substances. And last November, Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina introduced a bill to decriminalize and regulate pot.

"The extreme conservatives who did take a stab at condemning Dank Brandon could barely muster a reason to be angry," Klee wrote. "Sen. Tom Cotton and Newsweek’s right-wing opinion editor Josh Hammer both took the line that many of the pardons were going to violent criminals who had pled down from much more serious charges. Neither was able to cite such a case... No, it looks like the GOP’s heart isn’t in this fight, and the best a few mouthpieces can do is cycle through the motions. It makes sense: the party’s legislators have already seen the writing on the wall, and their constituents’ desire for an end to the prohibition of cannabis. Few would find any benefit to standing in the way, and that group of hard-liners is rapidly dwindling."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I'm extremely fortunate.
  • I fully support decriminalizing marijuana and these pardons.
  • My feelings on legalization are much more complicated.

This announcement was oddly personal for me.

For obvious reasons I don't write about this much, but on days like today it feels worth revisiting: I sold pot in college.

I started smoking in my late teens, and when I was a sophomore in college and starting to become self-sufficient, a smoking buddy of mine offered to supply me with large quantities of weed I could sell to my friends. At the time, it felt like an obvious arrangement. I was already buying pot regularly, and now I could sell it to people I knew. I simultaneously became the cool guy who always had weed while also making more money more easily than I could working my landscaping or student newspaper job.

Of course, the idiocy of it all wasn't obvious to me then. But I snapped to attention after an acquaintance got busted during a routine cops-crash-a-college-party night, and I immediately swore off selling ever again. It took a couple more years — and a stint of sobriety in a yeshiva right after college — for me to realize I was happier, healthier and more productive when I wasn't smoking all the time.

Still, I made the decision to sell pot not because I needed to or would really benefit from it but because I was greedy and too confident in my own street smarts to know better. I had a very high risk threshold and I was lucky that, in the year or so I was selling weed in college, I never got pulled over in my car or had my backpack searched. I was also lucky that, when my apartment's roof was unexpectedly painted, the maintenance guys found the weed plant I was growing and simply stole it rather than reporting me to my landlord or calling the cops. Pennsylvania's justice system would not have been kind to me.

Many millions of other Americans over the last 60 years have not been as fortunate. Fundamentally: People should not be in jail, be prohibited from voting, or be limited in their job and housing searches because of marijuana possession charges. But 6,500 people live with those restrictions, and I’m glad Biden is pardoning them. The reason the opposition from the right is so muted, as Klee put it, is that most Americans are probably glad too. There is growing recognition that hundreds of thousands of people are in jail or have had their lives ruined over marijuana charges that, across party lines, most of us don’t really care about.

Obviously, because of my own personal story, I feel similarly even about people who distributed cannabis. This gets into trickier territory, and the details of those cases are obviously important, but at a time when you can walk into stores in 19 states to buy pot like it’s cigarettes, while also buying up cannabis stock through your broker, the idea that people are in jail for this is rightfully described as an “injustice.” Biden's federal pardon won't address that, or help folks in prison or with records on state charges, but as president, it's one of the few things he can do to nudge states to continue to relax their laws and give those arrested or incarcerated on marijuana charges the chance for the redemption they deserve. That’s to say nothing of the resources and money it would save our justice system to focus on other crimes.

I also think it's smart politically. It isn't just something that will be supported by Democrats and independent voters, but also by a lot of Trump-right Republicans and Libertarians, whose position on this is much different from the more traditional, establishment Republican view.

To be clear, though, my position on decriminalization is separate from my position on legalization. I wrote a 4,000-word subscribers-only post on this in November of 2021. The upshot of that piece is that my position on legalization has changed dramatically over the last five or six years — almost entirely because of research on the new, far more potent strains that are now popular among people who use cannabis.

Simply put: This isn't your mom and dads’ weed anymore. It's orders of magnitude more potent, and the effects on the brain and body are similarly much different. The studies on regular pot use today associate it strongly with psychological and physical health concerns. And it's also clear that marijuana legalization at the state level leads to more problematic use among adults and teenagers. We should take those concerns seriously and continue to slow roll widespread recreational legalization as we learn more about long term effects. We should also be thinking seriously about how best to limit the potency of cannabis products.

Of course, even potent marijuana today shouldn't be treated like heroin. This is just to say that in the end, although my feelings about legalization are complicated, I absolutely support these pardons — and decriminalizing cannabis more broadly.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I live in Ohio and I'm doing my research on our Senate candidates before midterms.  Something that stands out to me is the fact that JD Vance has primarily lived outside of Ohio (until recently, when he moved back in 2018 or 2019) while Tim Ryan has lived here his whole life. Residency requirements for running for Senate seem... minimal. If this person is supposed to be representing me and my state, shouldn't they have lived there for longer than "during the time of the election"? What are your thoughts?

— Emily, Ohio

Tangle: Honestly, it doesn't bother me that much. I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and lived in Hamilton until I was five. Then I lived right across the river in Yardley, Pennsylvania from the age of five to 18, before moving to Pittsburgh for college and then New York for about a decade. Now I'm back in Philadelphia. If I wanted, I think I'm perfectly "qualified" — from a residency standpoint — to run for office in either New York (if I moved back tomorrow) or Philadelphia, and maybe even a few places in New Jersey on the Delaware river. I know those states intimately, and I think I have a very good grasp of their issues and the concerns of the constituents there.

I also think having experience living in multiple places is a strength. For instance, my personal experience allows me to see how terrible New York City's parking rules and regulations are compared to Philadelphia's, while it also shows me how bad Philadelphia's public transportation system is compared to New York City's. If I were JD Vance, I'd emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of Ohio that I've learned by spending time in other places. I'd frame it as an asset, not a weakness. And I think I'd be right to.

On the flip side, of course, "carpetbagging" has a negative connotation for a reason. We have seen politicians seek political office in places where they have no connection — simply because they viewed it as an opportunity to get elected. Serving constituents requires an understanding of the environment that they live in, so such instances of opportunistic advancement should be rejected — not by fraught legislation, but by voters.

Still, I think Vance's Ohio credentials are plentiful, and even though Ryan may have spent more time there, I think Vance is well above the minimum threshold of "Ohioan" to be running for the Senate. And if Ohioans disagree, they will show it at the ballot box.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The investigation into the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe is set to wind down as the second trial begins. In this trial, Special Counsel John Durham is expected to testify about the role a Washington D.C.-based analyst named Igor Danchenko played in the spreading of an opposition dossier about Trump. Danchenko has been charged on five counts of making false statements to the FBI about where he got his information. Throughout his three-year inquiry, Mr. Durham’s office has attempted to build the case that allies of Hillary Clinton intentionally provided the FBI with inaccurate and damaging information about Trump and Russia to damage his campaign. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


  • 1,042,000. The number of people currently incarcerated in state prisons in America.
  • 547,000. The number of people currently incarcerated in local jails in America.
  • 208,000. The number of people currently incarcerated in federal prisons and jails in America.
  • 1 million. The estimated number of drug possession arrests police made each year over the last decade.
  • 29 million. Since 1965, the number of Americans who have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

Have a nice day.

At 86 years old, Toshisuke Kanazawa just became the oldest person to compete in a Japanese bodybuilding competition. Kanazawa took part in the 68th edition of the men's bodybuilding championships in Osaka, breaking his own record for oldest competitor. "I'm grateful for just being able to participate. I hope I can reach the hearts of others when they see me take on a challenge even in old age," he said. He started bodybuilding at the age of 20 and won the Japanese championships for the first time when he was 24. After the competition, he told reporters he wanted to compete until he was 90. "And I'd like to set myself as an example to other grandpas and grandmas in the world by living healthy until 100." The Mainichi has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.