US President Joe Biden is set to pardon all people convicted on federal charges of simple marijuana possession, an action fulfilling his campaign pledge and his first major step towards decriminalizing the drug.
Biden’s announcement will commence the process of potentially loosening the federal classification of marijuana, a move that senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans charged with that crime.
The announcement was made on Thursday, and it comes a month ahead of critical November elections that will determine control of Congress.
Democrat candidates, particularly Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running for his state’s US Senate seat, have made the issue of marijuana legalization central to their campaigns.
However, democrats have sought to quash allegations that they are soft on crime, an issue that has risen to the top of some voters’ agendas in certain swing districts.
Biden also encouraged governors to take similar steps to pardon state simple marijuana possession charges, a move that would potentially affect many thousands more Americans.
Marijuana to be expeditiously reviewed under federal law
Marijuana is currently in the same category as heroin and LSD. In order for Biden to potentially ease its federal classification to pardon convicts, he will task the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
In a video announcing his executive actions, Biden said, “No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana, [as] it’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.”
“And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences,” Biden stated. “While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” he maintained. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Biden first US president to decriminalize marijuana
The President’s announced moves stop short of full decriminalization, which has enjoyed growing support among both political parties.
However, Biden’s moves are the first significant steps taken by a US president toward removing criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession.
For weeks, Biden and a small circle of White House aides had been wrangling over the changes, complicated both by his own personal skepticism about decriminalization and not wanting to dictate changes to the Justice Department.
During his tenure as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, Biden spent years working on crime bills, hence the marijuana issue is typically a view he had envisioned.
In the 2020 campaign, aides argued that he was waiting for new studies to come out to inform a shift in his position, but, even without any such studies, Biden was eventually moved by arguments about the lack of fairness and justice, particularly along racial lines.
White House aides were also watching the calendar with the midterms in mind, hoping that the changes long sought by criminal justice advocates would help build enthusiasm among Black voters, younger voters, and a wider array of core Democratic voters.
Senior White House administration officials declined to say how quickly the review that would lead to further steps toward decriminalization might be completed. It was noted that it requires careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific and medical information.
Some regulations on marijuana to be maintained
In his statement during the announcement, the President noted that certain rules on marijuana would remain in place even if the drug is rescheduled.
Biden said, “Even as federal and local regulations of marijuana change, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place.”
Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is listed on Schedule 1, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, individual states have moved toward legal use for recreational and medical purposes.
The current legal position of marijuana use has left some users open to prosecution even in places where its use is legal.
A senior White House administration official said that an administrative process overseen by the Justice Department will issue Biden’s pardons, and those eligible for the pardons would receive a certificate showing they had been officially exonerated of their crime.
No Americans are currently serving prison time solely on federal simple marijuana possession charges, officials said, but they indicated that the number that had been charged with that crime was north of 6,500.
During his presidential campaign, Biden stopped short of endorsing the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes but adopted a stance towards decriminalization.
“No one should be in jail because of marijuana,” he said during his presidential campaign. “As President, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
In recent years, the loosening of federal rules on marijuana has gained steam, as it is legalized in a growing number of states. In late 2020, the House passed a measure that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, though it wasn’t taken up by Senate with Republicans as the majority.