The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sentenced to 40 years, Biden’s marijuana pardons left him behind

A protest is set to advocate for the estimated 2,800 people who are in federal prison for cannabis-related convictions

A marijuana-legalization protest outside the White House in 2016. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
7 min

Edwin Rubis heard about President Biden’s announcement of mass marijuana pardons earlier this month and realized he would be left out.

Rubis — who has spent more than two decades in federal prison for his involvement in a cannabis distribution conspiracy — and others in prison for marijuana-related convictions, would not be covered by the pardons. In fact, no one will be released from prison due to this announcement because, White House officials said, there is no one currently in federal prison solely for simple possession of cannabis.

Rubis’s projected release date is not for almost another decade: Aug. 6, 2032.

“I don’t belong in prison any longer,” said Rubis, 54, in a phone interview from a medium-security federal prison in Talladega, Ala. “I might have belonged in prison when I first came in, the first 2, 3, 4 years, but I have done so many things that the system has asked me to do. I believe I’m truly rehabilitated.”

Protesters are expected to gather outside the White House on Monday to advocate for people like Rubis, incarcerated for what they would consider nonviolent offenses that involve marijuana, especially as public perception of the substance has shifted. Cannabis is now legal for recreational adult use in Washington, D.C., two territories and 19 states. It is on the ballot in five more states next month.

For those hoping to see marijuana law and policy reforms untangle the legacy of the country’s war on drugs, Biden’s announcement this month that he’d pardon people convicted of federal simple possession did not go far enough. And meaningful post-conviction reform still remains largely elusive in an America that echoed with promises to scrutinize criminal justice following the murder of George Floyd.

The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit working on cannabis criminal justice reform that lobbied the White House on this issue, has estimated that there are roughly 2,800 people in federal prison due to marijuana-related convictions, a statistic the organization said stems from a 2021 report from Recidiviz, a nonprofit that uses technology and data to build tools for criminal justice reform.

Instead of remaining bitter that he received a long sentence — 40 years — as a young man, Rubis has been hopeful, dedicating himself to education and helping fellow people who are incarcerated. He has earned three degrees, including a master’s in Christian counseling and is working on his doctorate, mentored others who are incarcerated, worked as a law library clerk and as a dental assistant, and led Christian Bible studies.

And he has gained the support of prison staffers, including a unit manager, the staff chaplain and a library supervisor, who wrote letters submitted in a court motion to reduce Rubis’s sentence, describing how Rubis is kind and patient, has a positive attitude and is dedicated to bettering his life and others.

“It almost feels like this was a test to see if the cannabis community was naive or stupid enough to mistake an announcement like this for what we were promised,” said Steve DeAngelo, the founder of the Last Prisoner Project. “It was more of a self-serving political fig leaf than any real action for change.

Biden announced mass marijuana pardons. What does that mean for D.C.?

Biden’s pardon announcement would apply to the about 6,500 people nationwide who have had federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana on their records since 1992, the White House estimated. The announcement would also apply to people convicted before 1992, but the government does not have data before then. Biden urged governors to issue the same pardons as he did, as most marijuana convictions historically have come at the state level.

“Criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, to housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said earlier this month when announcing the pardons. “And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences.”

Protest organizers cite a gap between what they viewed as Biden’s promise and this recent proclamation, pointing to a debate clip where Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pressed Biden on his stance on marijuana legalization: “I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period,” Biden said onstage. “And I think everyone, anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged, and be completely zeroed out. … Everybody gets out, record expunged.”

The White House has insisted the pardons are a fulfillment of a 2020 campaign promise. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson pointed to previous commitments from Biden, including from his website in 2020, which included Biden’s belief that “no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone.”

The organizers of Monday’s protest, including DC Marijuana Justice, which worked to legalize the drug in the city, sent a letter to the president requesting he use his executive authority to release at least 100 people incarcerated on federal cannabis charges. They argue that there are thousands of people serving long-term prison sentences for activities involving amounts of marijuana “that are far less than what dispensaries routinely handle on a daily basis,” the letter reads.

It has been only a decade since Colorado and Washington became the first U.S. states to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use. Thirty-seven states, three territories and the District allow the medical use of marijuana, as of Feb. 3. And voters in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota will soon decide whether recreational marijuana can be used legally in their state.

Still, Black people have been arrested at 3.64 times the rate of White people for having marijuana, despite using the substance at similar rates, according to an American Civil Liberties Union review of arrests between 2010 and 2018.

Marijuana is on the ballot in five more states this year

The first step in ending the war on drugs — which has disproportionally affected Black and Brown communities — is releasing people who have been incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses, said Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Offenses like cultivation, distribution and conspiracy, Ortiz said, are the same actions major companies are able to commercialize and profit from today.

“There are multibillion dollar companies that sell thousands and thousands of pounds of cannabis a year and operate in multiple states. So if we’re going to allow for that type of commerce to happen, everyone in prison who did anything even remotely close to that should be immediately let out.”

After Virginia legalized pot, majority of defendants are still Black

Rubis said he understands there are punishments for his choices in the 1990s, but decades without his freedom? He doesn’t think it’s fair.

When he was incarcerated, he said, his then-wife was three months pregnant. His eldest son was 5 years old and the other was 3 years old. He hasn’t been able to watch his kids grow up, and dreams of rebuilding relationships lost to time.

Rubis, who was born in El Salvador and as a child moved with his family to Houston, has remained close with his sister, brother and his parents. But he’s worried that by the time he is released, his mother and father will no longer be alive.

He tries to stay positive by packing his cell with books, about 100 of them, he says, filling up shelves and a table, and stacked in a corner. On his pillow, he places his Bible — his main source of motivation and inspiration as he meditates every morning.

“I declare that my day is going to be a beautiful day, that my day is going to be peaceful,” he said. “That I’m going to find joy in it no matter what.”