Today President Joe Biden announced that he will pardon people with federal convictions for simple possession of cannabis. Going further, he announced that he will direct the U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to begin the process of reviewing the classification of cannabis at the federal level.
The official White House statement was published October 6, noting that under current federal law, cannabis falls under Schedule I alongside deadly drugs like fentanyl. The White House will “review expeditiously” the plant’s current classification.
The New York Times reports that the move will affect upwards of around 6,500 people who were convicted on federal charges for simple possession of cannabis during the time period of 1992 to 2021, and thousands more convictions based in the District of Columbia.
“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden tweeted. “Today, I’m taking steps to end our failed approach. Allow me to lay them out.”
Biden then provided three key points: pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession; calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses; and finally, asking Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and the Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to initiate the process of reviewing how cannabis should be scheduled under federal law.
NORML leaders were cautiously optimistic, noting that efforts to get the attention of the White House for real cannabis reform at the federal level have been going on for decades.
“Many of the efforts taken and proposed by the President today are long overdue,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a statement provided to High Times. “For nearly two years, NORML has called upon the Administration to fulfill the President’s campaign promise to provide relief to those stigmatized with a low-level cannabis conviction. We are pleased that today President Biden is following through on this pledge and that he is also encouraging governors to take similar steps to ensure that the tens of millions of Americans with state-level convictions for past marijuana crimes can finally move forward with their lives. Since 1965, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related violations—for activities that the majority of voters no longer believe ought to be a crime.”
“Moving forward, the Administration must work collaboratively with Congressional leadership to repeal America’s failed marijuana criminalization laws. Nearly half of voters now agree that legalizing marijuana ought to be a priority for Congress, and such action can only be taken by descheduling cannabis and repealing it from the US Controlled Substances Act—thereby regulating it in a manner similar to alcohol. 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.”
Leaders in Congress—notably members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—applauded the move. The office of Congressman Earl Blumenauer, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, also sent High Times his official statement on the matter.
“Today, President Biden took an important step in the fight to end the federal government’s failed and discriminatory prohibition of cannabis,” said Congressman Blumenauer. “No president has stepped forward to pardon low-level marijuana offenders at this scale before. At a time when 99% of Americans live in a state where some form of cannabis use is legal, it is unthinkable that anyone—especially predominantly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans—are imprisoned for simple, nonviolent cannabis possession.”
“This is a critical, important step forward for racial justice in the failed war on drugs that too often targeted people of color, especially Black and Latino men. While this order is welcome and long overdue, it is just the first step of many that this Administration should take,” Congressman Blumenauer continued. “We have pending legislation that deals with medical marijuana research and the ability for cannabis businesses to access banking services—both of which have gained support in the House and Senate. The President should embrace and celebrate. It is critical that we put the full force of the federal government behind them.
“There was a time when this was controversial,” Congressman Blumenauer added. “Yet for several years, the federal government has been left behind by people and states who did not wait. Not only does more than two-thirds of the public support full legalization, even half of American Republicans are also ready to end this chapter of the failed war on drugs. We welcome this action and hope it is the first of several noncontroversial critical steps to promote justice, equity, and rational policy.”
US Cannabis Council (USCC) CEO, Khadijah Tribble also chimed in, saying that Biden’s statement aligns with many of the council’s goals.
“President Biden is right: No one should be in jail just for using or possessing cannabis. This executive action will positively impact countless Americans who have been saddled with criminal histories and the unjust suffering and consequences of cannabis prohibition. This is a particularly cathartic moment for Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.
“We commend the President for making good on his campaign promise to grant pardons to non-violent cannabis offenders. This announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration appointing the first advisor on cannabis research and regulation at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and further reinforces the fact that it’s just a question of when—not if—cannabis is decriminalized altogether.
“As the nation reckons with the wrongs of the past, it’s also time to look to the future. The Senate should pass the SAFE Banking Act, to help ensure that the communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition can safely and gainfully participate in the burgeoning cannabis industry,” Tribble said.
The Justice Department will begin the process of providing certificates of pardons to people who are eligible, USA Today reports.