In a historic moment for drug policy reform in the United States, President Joe Biden announced on October 6 that he would immediately pardon all past federal convictions for cannabis possession. Citing the mass incarceration and racial injustices of “our failed approach to marijuana,” he continued that he would urge all governors to do the same at the state level. The federal government will stop charging anyone with simple possession. And it will start a process to review the Schedule I status of the drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
“As I said when I ran for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden began.
He and his administration have long been criticized for failing to carry out that election pledge, and Biden has been seen as holding up the momentum toward legalization, including after the Democratic-controlled House passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in April. After a long silence on the subject, the president said in July that “we’re working on” freeing marijuana prisoners, without providing further details. He has finally followed through.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
“It’s already legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, to housing, and educational opportunities,” he continued in his October 6 address. “And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and Brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.”
He then outlined the steps he would take. “First, I’m announcing a pardon for all prior federal offenses for the simple possession of marijuana. There are thousands of people who are convicted of marijuana possession who may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result of that conviction. My pardon will remove this burden on them.”
“Second, I’m calling on all governors to do the same for state marijuana possession offenses.”
“Third, the federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance the same as heroin and LSD and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense. So, I’m asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to initiate a process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Even as federal and local regulations of marijuana change, important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales should stay in place. Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Not long after Biden’s announcement, both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that they would move to quickly follow the president’s order.
“The Justice Department will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense,” the DOJ said in a statement. “In coming days, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will begin implementing a process to provide impacted individuals with certificates of pardon.”
“We are thrilled to see President Biden holding true to his commitment … This is incredibly long overdue.”
Drug policy reform advocates immediately celebrated the news.
“We are thrilled to see President Biden holding true to his commitment to pardon every person with simple marijuana charges at the federal level, including people in DC,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a press statement. “And we are further encouraged by his efforts to get Governors to take similar actions at the state level. This is incredibly long overdue. There is no reason that people should be saddled with a criminal record—preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities—for something that is already legal in 19 states and DC and decriminalized in 31 states.”
According to the the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, “More than 99% of federal drug offenders are sentenced for trafficking.” However, officials said that over 6,500 people with federal cannabis possession convictions will immediately benefit.
In the political context, the news can be seen as an “October surprise,” as critical midterm elections loom—like the Senate race in Pennsylvania between the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman (D), and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz (R). According to Marijuana Moment, Fetterman, who has made marijuana legalization a primary issue in his campaign, talked with Biden about changing marijuana’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. A recent poll showed that 69 percent of Americans support federal marijuana legalization, meaning Biden’s move is sure to be popular.
While unprecedented, the move fulls short of the full federal decriminalization that Biden pledged, let alone legalization. New FBI data showed more than 170,000 arrests for cannabis possession nationwide in 2021. Advocates recognize that there is much further to go.
“We … hope that the Biden Administration will go further and fully deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), rather than initiate a process that could lead to rescheduling,” Frederique said. “Keeping marijuana on the federal drug schedule will mean people will continue to face criminal charges for marijuana. It also means that research will continue to be inhibited and state-level markets will be at odds with federal law.”
The scheduling review process “will take some time because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific and medical information that’s available,” a senior official told CNN.
“We urge the President to support the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this year,” Frederique continued, “which would fully remove marijuana from the CSA, provide expungement and resentencing for past marijuana convictions beyond simple possession, and comprehensively repair the harms of marijuana criminalization.”
Update, October 11: This article has been edited to more accurately reflect the status of the 6,500 people who will immediately benefit.
Photograph by United States Mission Geneva via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.