Joe Biden has moved to pardon federal simple weed possession. Photos via Getty,
President Joe Biden announced he would pardon people convicted of federal cannabis possession and called on governors to follow suit at the state-level, in one of the biggest shifts in federal cannabis policy in decades. Biden also announced on Thursday the federal government will finally start considering rescheduling marijuana under federal law; it is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug on the Controlled Substances Act, the same as heroin.
“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said.
“There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result,” who will now receive pardons for weed possession, Biden said in a statement. A presidential pardon would not expunge an offender’s federal record, as this can only be done within the courts, according to the Department of Justice. Weed possession is illegal under federal law, with the first offense punishable by up to one year in prison. Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have legalized adult recreational use of the drug. It is still fully illegal in four states. But very few people are actually prosecuted for simple possession; in 2017, out of nearly 20,000 drug-related federal sentences handed down, just 92 were for simple possession of marijuana, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The vast majority of cannabis-related sentencing that year was for drug trafficking; Biden said Thursday that “important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place.”The overwhelming majority of possession prosecutions have come at the state level; Biden can only recommend that governors apply more leniency, which he did Thursday.
Cannabis arrests also disproportionately impact Black and brown Americans, which Biden acknowledged in his Twitter thread. “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many states. That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right these wrongs,” he said. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for weed.
Biden also said he’d directed Cabinet officials “to initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” No timeline on the process was given.
Biden has been a longtime opponent of weed legalization, but the Democratic base and even Democratic elected officials in Congress and at the state level have moved substantially to the left on the issue. Though the House of Representatives passed legislation which would legalize weed earlier this year, the bill has stalled in the Senate. But Maritza Perez, director of federal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, previously told VICE News that simply moving cannabis to a different schedule on the Controlled Substances Act wouldn’t go far enough. “That position has really frustrated me because rescheduling marijuana and descheduling are different things. And if we reschedule, we're not removing criminal penalties, we're just lessening them,” she said. Biden’s federal pardon also comes with limitations, as it “does not apply to individuals who were non-citizens not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offense,” according to the proclamation made Thursday.