The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, October 10, 2022

It’s Monday, October 10th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

It’s a Bigger Story Than the Media Are Telling: President Biden Announces Federal Pardon of All Persons Convicted for Simple Marijuana Possession

Here’s something to watch. When the White House makes a big announcement and it’s a surprise announcement, it’s because it didn’t want negative publicity before the announcement was made. That was the case on Thursday when the President of the United States made the statement that he was issuing a blanket pardon for all of those who had been convicted of the federal crime of mere marijuana possession. That’s the way he put it. Let me cite his opening words, “As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.” He went on to say, “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And 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.”

He went on to say that Thursday he was announcing three big steps. First of all, this pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. Second, urging all governors to do the same with regard to state offenses. And third, asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to, “Initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” Now, you might expect that this deserves a closer look, and indeed it does. It raises the whole issue of marijuana. It raises the issue of marijuana within the context of moral change in the United States. It raises questions moral, medical, and political. And of course, it raises legal questions as well.

The first question has to do with this. The president announced this massively important pardon of all persons who are convicted of the simple crime of marijuana possession at the federal level and are currently serving time in federal prison systems. That would amount to how many people? Well, I ask you to imagine the enormity of this number. The number of persons who will be released because of this presidential pardon is exactly zero. The reason why that number is zero is because, according to most legal authorities, there are absolutely no persons currently serving any time in a federal prison because of the simple singular charge of marijuana possession. That’s likely why the president began by simply stating, “No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” because that would include presumably state prisons and local jails as well as the federal prison system.

And by the time he got to his second point calling on governors to follow his example in these pardons, well that tells you that he wasn’t going to come right out and tell Americans, “Look, what I’m doing is not going to release a single person from jail.” He went on to call governors to release a far larger number. But the bigger issue here is that this isn’t just a release from prison, at least hypothetically, this is also a pardon. Now that’s a rather complicated issue and it raises a host of moral issues, and you won’t be surprised, some of those issues have a very clear biblical background. But given the enormity and the complexity of this issue, we’re going to have to take some of these issues separately in order to keep our thinking distinct.

Number one, what exactly is a pardon? Well, a pardon in the legal tradition means that someone in legal authority forgives someone who has been convicted of a crime for the consequences of that crime. In some cases, there’s an expungement of the record, although in the customary case, just receiving a pardon does not mean that the record has been expunged, that in most legal contexts is a separate act. And furthermore, a pardon has to be received. That’s another part of the legal tradition. Someone in legal authority may have the right to pardon, but you have to accept the pardon in order for it to be legally enforceable. And the reason for that should be clear, and that is that the one in authority who offers the pardon clearly believes that he is doing something, and that something that he is doing is being done on behalf of another. And so at least in some context, you have to admit guilt in order to receive the pardon. At the very least, you cannot challenge, in terms of any kind of appeal, a crime for which you have been convicted and later pardoned, not if you accept the pardon.

You’ll recognize of course that Christians understand that this isn’t just a legal issue. This is a theological issue. This is a part of our hymnody. Just think of the famous Fanny Crosby hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness, pardon from sin and a peace that endureth.” Where is that language from about pardoning from sin? It is ultimately about a holy God forgiving sin, forgiving the iniquity of sinners, and doing so eternally, finally, completely in the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of our sins, at that point we are in effect receiving a pardon, and this is made clear in the scriptural text itself. Consider for example, Psalm 25, verse 11. David prays, “For your name’s sake, oh Lord, pardon my iniquity for it is great.” Now, you’ll notice David doesn’t say, “Forget my iniquity.”

He doesn’t say, “I appeal the conviction of my iniquity.” No, he says, “My iniquity is great.” He is praying for pardon. And by definition, a pardon is something that comes by grace. It is not deserved, it’s not earned. It is given out of sheer grace. In Jeremiah 33:8 the Lord says through Jeremiah, “I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against me.” In the New Testament you see echoes of that very theme, and it all comes down to the atonement perfectly, eternally accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ for those who are his own.

So that’s the moral and theological background, and in terms of the Western legal tradition, the idea of a pardon again goes back to the fact that there is someone with legal authority, generally someone like a king or a president or a governor or someone who has the power to pardon, to issue pardons. The pardon is that person handing down a forgiveness statement. And you’ll notice that in the United States by the way, in most legal jurisdictions, that again doesn’t mean that the crime is expunged from the record, and that turns out to be quite a complexity for President Biden’s announcement made last Thursday.

Part II

Conveniently Timed For the Midterm Elections: President Biden’s Evolution on Marijuana

Now, let’s consider, does President Biden have the right to issue these pardons? Well, constitutionally, the President is given a power of pardon, and so in that sense, the President almost unquestionably has the authority to pardon persons who have been convicted of federal crimes. This is a very large pardon in terms of the number of persons involved by the way. It’s different than an amnesty that basically puts a law into suspension, and it’s different than the reversal of a conviction. No, a pardon is something unto itself, but when you’re looking at the power to pardon in the United States, it is not limited to the President. At least in most states, the governor has some limited pardon ability. But the President made this announcement on Thursday, and he made the announcement without any previous public relations in such a way that he caught the nation by surprise.

You ask a question, “Why would the President do this?” Well, let’s just state the obvious. Midterm elections are coming up. The President and his party are very much on the line, and this is the kind of thing you might well expect a Democratic president to do with the clock running out before the midterm elections. And the President, let’s just state clearly, has a lot at stake in these midterm elections. Frankly, we all do. But nonetheless, this is a largely political act, and the President knew it was a political act because he knew he wasn’t actually springing anyone from any prison. The larger part of what the President did was basically to add momentum towards the acceptability of marijuana, the normalization of marijuana.

And when you’re looking at this, you have to realize the President, as on this issue, has been a very interesting evolving figure. If you go back just a matter of years, the then Senator Biden and Vice President Biden didn’t seem to be very hot on legalizing marijuana at all. Even in 2019 when he was clearly running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he did not give support towards the legalization of marijuana, certainly not nationwide, and he expressed the concern, which has been very much affirmed by medical and mental health experts, that marijuana often is, and this is the word that Biden used at the time, a “gateway drug.” The President said, he wasn’t president yet, but when he was running for the Democratic nomination he said he was concerned enough about that evidence that he was not going to commit himself to the legalization of marijuana.

And you say, “Well, what changed?” Well, now wait just a minute. The President didn’t exactly call for the legalization of marijuana. As you’re looking at this, another issue we need to consider is the larger process of moral change. We’re going to get to that in a moment, but just understand that President Biden was clearly timing this announcement, not just in terms of the midterm elections, not just in terms of say this year, this month, this week. No, he was really dealing with the fact that on so many other issues, he has been very much, to use a term he’s used himself, an evolving figure, and it just so happens that he tends to evolve pretty much on schedule with his party’s left wing.

Even if he has not gone full bore into the legalization argument, you’ll notice that his third point in his announcement last week was that he’s asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General, here are his words again, to initiate the administrative process, doesn’t that sound powerful, to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Now, that gets to another very interesting issue.

Right now, a good percentage of Americans have legal access to marijuana, either so-called medical or recreational marijuana, or both, in their state or in their jurisdiction. And we’re looking at the fact that 19 states, and that number seems to go up just about all the time, 19 states have taken some measure towards legalizing, normalizing, decriminalizing marijuana, either for medical or recreational use. Now, there are 50 states, so you’re really looking at a pretty large percentage of states in the United States, and those states include a pretty significant portion of our population. But where is the federal government on marijuana? It is not in neutral. As a matter of fact, according to the federal government and the federal law, marijuana is a schedule one prohibited drug.

Now that’s the most serious level imaginable. And so you’re really looking at the fact that the federal government, including under democratic administrations, including under administrations of persons who actually favored, to one extent or another, a great loosening of the criminalization of marijuana in the United States, the FDA and other federal agencies have been unmoved. Now, let’s go back to the President’s actual announcement made last Thursday. He said that he was granting, “A full, complete and unconditional pardon,” that’s the quote there, to every American who has been convicted under federal law for the simple possession of marijuana. Now, a really interesting response to that announcement came from a former drug czar in the United States, that is to say a former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and a former US Education Secretary by the way, that would be William Bennett. He came out in an article that was written with Seth Leibsohn, to argue that what the President is doing will actually drive crime higher.

They go on to point out, “No one is in federal prison for simple possession, but illegal drug use fuels antisocial behavior.” Secretary Bennett was indeed director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the years between 1989 and 1990. It was a cabinet position in the administration of George H.W. Bush. I had the honor of meeting with Secretary Bennett during the time that he was director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, and I can tell you he took the issue seriously then, and I continue to take the issue seriously now. Even as President Biden made this pardon announcement, Secretary Bennett went on to make very clear, along with his co-writer of this piece, Seth Leibsohn, that he understands that this is a political statement. In their article, they said this, “At best, the claim that the federal government is upending lies 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.””

Now, there are disparities, no doubt about it. There are inequities. That’s using the word that the left so often emphasizes these days, equities and inequities. One of them has to do with the fact that, as President Biden indicated and which no basically contests, the arrest rate for the use of marijuana is higher among those described by the President as Black or Brown skinned rather than White Americans, even though the usage is at least estimated to be roughly commensurate. But that’s not particularly clear, the usage rates, but let’s just take the argument as it stands. It would be wrong to target persons based upon the color of their skin when it comes to this kind of arrest, no doubt about it.

But it’s also true, and many law enforcement officials have pointed this out as well, that rarely is someone stopped merely for the suspicion that they might have marijuana. But this is not to say it doesn’t happen. And in so far as law enforcement has the opportunity to make a system more just, it has the responsibility to make the system more just. But this blanket pardon is sending a moral signal, and that moral signal is in the service of many particularly in the Democratic left, but we need to recognize it’s not limited there. And that’s really the bigger picture here. It is not just about marijuana. It’s about the larger context of moral change. But before we get to that, we just do need to recognize that when the President made this announcement, we need to know that there’s more to it in terms of whether or not marijuana is dangerous.

For one thing, the marijuana that is being sold now routinely in the United States isn’t the marijuana that was popular back in the 1960s. If anything, on average, the product as it is available now has four times as much strength as was true back in the 1960s. And that’s because you have had all kinds of cultivation, all kinds of development, and there is a huge cannabis business, and it’s come down to something almost as complicated as the wine business. All these different strains, all these different names, and of course there is a lot of commercialization going on here as well. But another big issue with big government is that the government tends to contradict itself. So the President got up and seemed to be saying, “Look, marijuana is just normal now. It’s no big deal. I’m asking for the federal government to reconsider the scheduling of the drug,” that is to say whether it is to be prohibited or how it is to be classified.

But just a matter of a few weeks ago, in August of this same year, the federal government released an annual survey of drug use among young Americans, and it signaled loudly its alarm that the rates of the use of drugs, including first of all cannabis, have been skyrocketing among young Americans ages 19 to 30, with all kinds of negative results. And who’s making this claim? The same government that Joe Biden is the president of.

Part III

National Institute on Drug Abuse Released Study on Dangers of Marijuana — So Why is the Biden Administration Making Strides that Normalize It Further Among Young People?

Dr. Nora Volkow, who is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and it publishes every year what’s known as the Monitoring the Future Survey, she said, “What they tell us,” speaking about the results, “What they tell us is that the problem of substance abuse among young people has gotten worse in this country, and that the pandemic, with all its mental stressors and turmoil, has likely contributed to the rise.”

The New York Times reporting on the release of this information from the federal government said, “Not surprisingly, the surge in marijuana use has been occurring in tandem with a rise in the number of states that have legalized recreational use, 19 in the past decade.” I’m going to stop there, because that 19 includes not only the states that have legalized some medical or recreational use. 19 states have actually legalized some form of recreational use. And then the Times tells us another 13 states allow the medical use of cannabis. But here’s the last line in this paragraph, “Experts say the normalization of marijuana has helped persuade many young people that it is harmless.” But the whole point of the article, and the point being made by this federal agency, is that marijuana is anything but harmless, particularly when it comes to young people. Allysia Finley, writing for the Wall Street Journal back in June of this year, so there is no presidential pardon in the headlines at that point, but nonetheless, Allysia Finley went on to write an article with the headline, “Cannabis and the Violent Crime Surge,” and the subhead in this article is, “Heavy marijuana use among youth is leading to more addiction and antisocial behavior.”

She cites Alex Berenson, an author we’ve cited before, one of his books is entitled, Tell Your Children the Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence. And he pointed out that it’s very interesting that given the Uvalde mass shooting, the New York Times had, to use the words here, curiously removed from an article about the Uvalde school shooter a former co-workers recollection that he complained about his grandmother not letting him smoke weed. And so what you’re looking at here is the accusation being made in the Wall Street Journal that major media, in this case specifically the New York Times, has basically gone soft on reporting the negative consequences and context of marijuana use.

The Wall Street Journal went on to say, “The Times didn’t append a correction to the story as might be expected to do when fixing a factual inaccuracy.” Finley goes on to say, “THC, the chemical that causes a euphoric high, interacts with the brain’s neuron receptors involved with pleasure.” Marijuana nowadays, and we pointed this out, on average is about four times as potent as in 1995, but dabs, that is portions of concentrated cannabis, can include 20 times as much THC as joints did in the 1960s. She summarizes, “It’s much easier for young people to get hooked. One in six people who start using pot while under 18 will develop an addiction, which doctors call cannabis use disorder.” She goes on to say, “As they use the drug more frequently to satisfy cravings, they develop psychological and social problems.”

Two of the states that have turned themselves into laboratories for this kind of marijuana use by the way, California and New York, they both hit a certain wall when it comes to the so-called legal marijuana market, and in both cases, but in particular the Los Angeles Times has done massive reporting of the situation in California, and there’s a big lesson about human sin here. It turns out that marijuana users in California tend to want the illegal stuff rather than the legal stuff. There are a couple of reasons. Number one, the legal stuff comes with taxes, because the taxpayers in California were sold on the idea that legalizing recreational and medical marijuana would lead to a windfall of tax revenue, but that doesn’t work when the black market is bigger than the legal market. But as you’re thinking about the politics here, one of the big issues in California and New York and elsewhere is what’s known as social equity when it comes to the legal marijuana market.

So for example, Marisa Gerber, writing for the Los Angeles Times, offers a headline story, “California promised social equity after pot legalization. Those hit hardest feel betrayed.” Then it turns out that even as a preference was supposed to be given to those who had been hurt by the over criminalization, it was argued, of marijuana, the fact is that really hasn’t worked out so well. But the biggest story, which really turns into a massive parable on this, comes from New York. An article that appeared just a few days before the President’s announcement about the pardon, and again this is the New York Times, this is not some conservative website, this is the liberal New York Times. Here is the headline, “Marijuana retail licenses in New York are going first to those convicted of drug crimes.” Yes, you’re right. That’s what I said. Social equity in this sense means that somehow the state of New York has persuaded itself that the first licenses for legalized marijuana sales, at least in terms of local dispensaries, should go to those who are actually convicted of drug crimes.

The sub head in the article, the State’s 200 million equity program is targeted at the, “Justice involved.” That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? The justice involved, “A controversial effort to redress the impacts of the war on drugs.” Now, again, there are moral issues that are involved here, and there are inequities. No one should deny the fact that there are inequities, but that raises the huge question, how exactly did those inequities appear, and how would justice suggest that they should be remedied? I’m not sure how this is selling politically in New York, but it’s evidently not working out at the practical level too well, and who should be surprised? But at the moral and political level, it’s really hard to imagine how this is going to be a winning argument nationwide.

But Christians have to understand that the purpose for the use of recreational marijuana is to have a mind or consciousness altering experience. That’s the whole point of marijuana. And Christians need to understand that there is nothing in scripture to justify trying to escape reality. The Bible dignifies reality. It does not dignify an altered state, and actually warns against drunkenness in both testaments over and over again. But finally, looking at the bigger context of all of this, you need to recognize that if you were to take two graphs and put them next to each other, or put them on top of one another, if you could do that, if you look at the rates of the acceptance and the moral change on the issue of same sex marriage and the issue of marijuana, you’re going to notice that they have a tremendous overlap. And that overlap means a parallel structure in which something happened in the course of the last, say 20 years, in which Americans overwhelmingly believing that something was morally wrong, have convinced themselves somehow that something was wrong is now right.

Or at the very least, if they’re not quite ready to say, “Hey, it’s morally right,” they say, “Look, we as a society don’t have the moral will to criminalize it, to prosecute it, to make a big deal of it.” And in some cases, when it comes to marijuana, and when it comes to same sex marriage, you have people who actually know better, who say, “Look, but I know somebody who,” or, “I have a kid who,” or, “I have a friend whose kid, who did this and got in jail, or has a record or has some kind of…” Well, let’s use the phrase in this New York Times article, justice involvement, that has something to do with marijuana. But as Secretary Bennett pointed out, and what you didn’t hear clearly from the White House, is that it is very rare for the possession of marijuana to be a singular standalone crime at the federal level.

And remember that as a result of the President’s pardon, exactly zero people will be released from federal prisons. A far larger number of people may have their criminal records changed or expunged at some level, but exactly how that works is not yet clear, not at all. The bigger issue is political, and the political momentum is clearly towards the legalization and normalization of marijuana. In reality, marijuana just isn’t the biggest issue facing the United States, but Christian citizens understand that it’s a part of the moral fabric of civilization, and it’s not a standalone issue because no moral issue actually does ever stand alone.

The worst moral message that any government could send at this time is that marijuana is just no big deal, because as it turns out, our own government, President Biden’s own government, is reporting that young people are listening, and to their harm.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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