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Fewer than 50 South Dakotans eligible for Biden marijuana pardon since 1992, data show

Though the pardons are expected to impact nearly 6,600 people, data from the United States Sentencing Commission indicates only 46 South Dakotans are eligible to receive a pardon.

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WASHINGTON — Though an October announcement from President Joe Biden promised pardons to individuals federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana, a review of federal court data indicates that fewer than 50 South Dakotans could be receiving clemency.

Making note that marijuana convictions have “upended” too many lives, Biden took to the media Oct. 6 to announce an overhaul of how the federal government and federal law enforcement agencies handle the drug, which is currently classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside drugs like ecstasy, heroin and LSD.

In addition to calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Health and Human Services to “expeditiously” review the process of rescheduling marijuana, Biden announced a proclamation to pardon all prior federal offenses for simple marijuana possession, a move expected to restore certain rights to as many as 6,577 American citizens and legal aliens convicted over the past two decades.

"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Biden said. "It's time that we right these wrongs."

According to data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), 46 such convictions have been seen in the District of South Dakota between 1992 and 2021 — the oldest data compiled in the commission’s report.

Of the 94 judicial districts in the United States, 68 districts — including Minnesota and North and South Dakota — saw fewer than 50 convictions during the same time period. The Districts of Arizona, Western Texas and Southern California account for over 40% of all simple marijuana possession convictions.

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Simple marijuana convictions by U.S. judicial district for citizens and legal alien federal offenders for fiscal years 1992–2021.
Map courtesy of the United States Sentencing Commission.

Of all 7,699 convictions, 85% of defendants were American citizens and more than 78% were male. More than 41% of offenders were white, nearly 32% were Hispanic and more than 23% were Black.

The USSC did not include non-resident aliens or those living in the country illegally.

According to the USSC’s Interactive Data Analyzer, which compiles statistics on all federal convictions only from October 2014 to September 2021, judicial districts adjacent to the United States’ southern border make up more than 28% of all federal convictions for possession or trafficking of all types of controlled substances.

Though the USSC acknowledged that no American citizens are currently in federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, it could break down some barriers preventing those from seeking employment, housing or educational opportunities.

At the conclusion of his Oct. 6 announcement, Biden encouraged all governors to grant clemency for state-level offenses involving marijuana possession. Gov. Kristi Noem has served as a longstanding opponent of cannabis-related measures, vetoing a 2019 measure to legalize hemp in the state and leading the charge behind the overturn of a 2020 ballot question that would have legalized recreational marijuana.

Noem has given no indication of her opinion on issuing pardons for low-level marijuana offenses.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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