News & Politics

Following Biden’s actions on marijuana, Wolf says he can’t issue unilateral pardons

Wolf’s office touted a recent initiative seeking to expedite pardons for people with marijuana convictions.

Gov. Tom Wolf during a press conference in Pittsburgh in August.

Gov. Tom Wolf during a press conference in Pittsburgh in August. Commonwealth Media Services

As part of a three-pronged approach to address the nation’s “failed approach” to prosecuting marijuana-related crimes, President Joe Biden said he plans to unilaterally pardon thousands of people with simple possession charges on their record, while also setting in motion a process to explore how the drug should be scheduled at the federal level. 

Biden also encouraged governors to follow his lead and pardon marijuana offenses at the state level, though Gov. Tom Wolf has already said his hands are tied on the matter, given that he does not have the power to issue unilateral pardons. 

In a tweet posted following Biden’s announcement, Wolf touted a recent initiative – dubbed the “PA Marijuana Pardon Project” – which aimed to fast-track pardons for nonviolent marijuana convictions, an effort that prompted more than 3,500 people to apply for expedited pardons. 

People eligible for the program included those with nonviolent possession charges, including those arrested for “Possession of Marijuana” and “Marijuana, Small Amount Personal Use” under Title 35. Proponents, including Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, said past convictions could disqualify people for housing, jobs, education and other opportunities.

But Wolf stressed that there’s little more he can do to get the ball moving on the matter. “Under Pennsylvania law, I don't have unilateral pardon authority – but I'm doing everything I can to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs,” he said.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, a governor has the ability to grant pardons and commute sentences, but only if a majority of the state’s Board of Pardons – made up of the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and three gubernatorial appointees – makes a recommendation to the governor. 

Pardons for death sentences and sentences of life imprisonment can only be made upon a unanimous recommendation from the board. 

This has been a unique opportunity to offer a second chance to individuals with certain marijuana-related convictions.
– Elizabeth Rementer

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, said that the administration’s expedited pardon initiative will allow for the Board of Pardons to make recommendations during its final meeting of the year in December. Rementer said thousands of people were eligible, and that a total of 3,539 people applied. 

The application period is now closed. The Board of Pardons will hold merit review sessions beginning Oct. 13 to determine which applicants will receive a public hearing. From Dec. 13 to 16, the board will then vote on individual cases. 

Rementer said with Wolf’s term ending in January 2023, this represents one of the last actions the administration will be taking to address certain criminal justice reforms.

“This has been a unique opportunity to offer a second chance to individuals with certain marijuana-related convictions,” Rementer said. “Certainly, the Board of Pardons could issue another expedited pardons project in the future.”

Those who receive a pardon under the program will still have to petition a court to have the conviction expunged from their record, according to the administration.