President Joe Biden has announced a mass pardon for people with federal “simple possession” marijuana charges, a major step towards national decriminalisation of cannabis and a big win for criminal justice advocates.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Thursday, slamming the US government’s past treatment of marijuana as a “failed approach”.
Marijuana is legal for recreational or medical use in most US states, but still remains illegal at the federal level.
“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” the president added. “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.”
The president also said he tasked the attorney general with creating a process to effectuate the pardons, and is asking the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to review marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
Schedule I status means the government considers cannabis has no accepted medical use and presents a high risk of abuse. The classification influences how marijuana is treated under federal criminal law more generally, and also puts up substantial barriers to those researching cannabis’s medical uses.
It’s unclear when the pardons would take effect, and the majority of the marijuana prisoners in the US are incarcerated at the state level, not federal prisons.
In his proposal accompanying the pardon announcement, Mr Biden also called on state governors to adopt similar steps.
Activists and liberal politicians celebrated Mr Biden’s decision as an important step towards racial justice and reducing mass incarceration.
“Congress should be inspired by the administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the president’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a statement.
“For years, I’ve stood with millions of Americans calling on multiple administrations to take action to issue pardons and decriminalise cannabis,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts added on Twitter on Thursday. “This move by President Biden is a historic decision – and it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s unclear exactly which federal charges meet the definition of “simple posession” under the new pardon plan.
A White House official told CNBC that the new policy would affect at least 6,500 people, as well as thousands more charged with posession under Washington DC, law, which is also covered under the Biden plan.
The White House also told The Hill that there’s no one currently in federal prison solely for the charges described in the president’s plan.
The pardon scheme also would not make a major dent in the larger dynamics of the drug issue. Poor people of colour have been disproportionately incarcerated for marijuana offences, resulting not only in prison sentences but often life-long limits on access to employment and government services, while wealthy white people have disproportionately been able to enter the lucrative marijuana trade in states where it’s legal.
Many activists and legislators argue a package including full legalisation at the federal level, incentives for justice-impacted people to enter the marijuana industry, and large-scale pardons are necessary to fully remedy the inequalities of the War on Drugs.
“President Biden’s decision to pardon all federal offences of simple marijuana possession brings us that much closer to restoring justice in our communities that have been targetted for decades,” congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York said on Thursday, adding, “Today’s announcement will reunite thousands of families and communities. We need to deschedule marijuana, legalise it in every state and pardon all who have been convicted of marijuana possession - now!”
Even a modest reduction in the number of marijuana convictions would mark a major change in the US criminal justice system.
In 2018, according to research from the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly half of all US arrests were for marijuana, with police booking more people for cannabis than all violent crimes combined.
Democratic voters, criminal and racial justice advocates, and members of Mr Biden’s own party have been pushing the White House to take bigger steps on marijuana reform.
In July, Senators and fellow Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Ron Wyden, Ed Markey and Kirsten Gillibrand hit out at Mr Biden’s “extraordinarily disappointing” record on cannabis thus far.
They’ve been asking for descheduling and mass pardons since last year, and many in the group have been pushing for federal legislation making marijuana legal and easier to research.
“It is obvious that cannabis has widely accepted medical benefits, affirmed by medical and scientific communities both here and across the globe,” the letter read.
As a candidate, Mr Biden said he backed decriminalising cannabis and pardoning low-level offences, but didn’t support full legalisation.
The announcement marks a dramatic shift in Joe Biden’s politics. In the 1990s, as a Senator, Mr Biden was a key architect of a number of “tough on crime” policies that exacerbated the War on Drugs and its disproportionate consequences on people of colour.
The White House spent the previous weeks debating the finer points of the pardon announcement, according to CNN, as Mr Biden reportedly remains skeptical about full legalisation.
The move brings him in line with larger national trends on marijuana laws.
As it stands, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legal medical marijuana, while 19 states have passed recreational cannabis laws.
Five more states – Missouri, Arkansas, North and South Dakota, and Maryland – are voting on recreational pot proposals this year.
Progressive candidates like Senate hopeful John Fetterman of Pennsylvania have made marijuana reform a key part of their pitch to voters.
Last month in Pittsburgh, Mr Biden and Mr Fetterman, the current Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, discussed descheduling marijuana, Politico reports.
Mr Fetterman said in a statement the move from the White House on Thursday was a big f***ing deal, or BFD. “I spoke with [the president] last month about decriminalising marijuana,” the Democrat wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
“Because no one should be turned down for a job or housing or volunteering at their kid’s school because of some old nonviolent weed charge. This is a BFD and a massive step towards justice. Thank you, Mr President.”
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