A senator in Puerto Rico has filed a bill that would expunge convictions for low-level marijuana possession. The sponsor of the legislation, independent Senator José “Chaco” Vargas Vidot, filed the bill on October 11, saying that he was inspired by President Joseph Biden’s announcement five days earlier that he would pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.
The senator from Puerto Rico was referring to an announcement Biden made on October 6 in which the president said that he would issue an executive order to pardon all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. The president’s pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more in the District of Columbia, according to a report from The New York Times. Biden also called on governors to take similar action at the state level, where the vast majority of cannabis possession charges are filed and prosecuted.
“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement on October 6. “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.”
Under Vidot’s plan, possession of up to five grams of cannabis would be decriminalized. The senator said the amount allows for a presumption of personal use, while larger quantities would still be subject to prohibition.
Stiff Penalties for Pot Possession in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, convictions for possession of any amount of cannabis are considered felonies that carry penalties of two to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for the first offense. Punishment for subsequent offenses is even harsher, with the time behind bars increased to four to 10 years, according to information from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
According to inmate population information from Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections (DCR), 65% of prisoners, or about 5,000 of the 7,000 people behind bars, suffer from problematic substance misuse. The DCR report also reveals that about 8% of men and 11% of women prisoners began using drugs after they entered the correctional system.
“Undoubtedly, these figures reflect a problem of availability of substances within the country’s prison institutions,” Vidot said. “Thus, people who report that they were not substance users prior to the conviction begin this process of consumption and addiction within the institution,” Vidot said. “For those people who were already fighting the disease of drug addiction when entering the penal system, the condition worsens within it.”
Following Biden’s announcement, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said that he would not follow the example set by the president’s executive order to pardon marijuana possession convictions, adding that DCR records indicate that no prisoners are being held for possession of marijuana. But Vidot countered that the agency’s records do not contain enough information to make that determination.
“The governor has already said that he will not give way to the executive order, lacking the will and courage to take an important step for justice,” Vidot said. “It is statistically impossible to know the number of inmates for simple possession of marijuana, because when they arrive at Corrections they tell them the law they violated, not the specific drug. Now the question is, who will have the courage to join me and give way to this in Puerto Rico?”
In 2018, Vidot, who is also a public health worker, introduced Senate Bill 912, a measure that would decriminalize possession of all controlled substances. And while the new bill is focused specifically on cannabis possession, the senator noted that he would like to see the Puerto Rican government eliminate all penalties for drug possession.
“Even though the goal should be the decriminalization of all drugs, as several advanced jurisdictions have already successfully done, with this proposal we advance the decriminalization of cannabis or marijuana, taking the first step in that direction,” he said.