President Joe Biden is taking its first major steps toward decriminalizing marijuana, fulfilling a campaign commitment to expunge prior federal convictions for possession and begin the process of potentially relaxing the drug’s federal classification.
Biden will pardon all previous federal offenses of simple marijuana possession on Thursday, a move senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans charged with that crime.
The announcement comes a month before critical November elections that will determine control of Congress. Some candidates, notably Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who is running for the US Senate seat for his state, have made the issue of marijuana legalization central to their bells. When Fetterman and Biden met last month, the candidate said he would raise the issue with the president. At the same time, Democrats have tried to push back against accusations that they are soft on crime, an issue that has risen to the top of some voters’ agendas in certain swing districts.
As part of the announcement, Biden also encouraged governors to take similar steps to pardon simple state marijuana possession charges, a move that could affect many thousands more Americans.
And the president will task the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to “promptly” review how marijuana is classified in federal law, the first step in potentially facilitating a federal classification that currently places marijuana in the same category. category than heroin and LSD.
“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a video announcing his executive actions. “It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have created unnecessary barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And that’s before addressing the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white, black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced at disproportionate rates.”
“Too many lives have been changed because of our failed approach to marijuana. It is time to correct these mistakes,” the president said.
The moves Biden announced on Thursday not reach full decriminalization, which has enjoyed growing support among both political parties. But they are the first significant steps by a US president to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
The president and a small circle of White House advisers had been arguing for weeks about the changes, complicated both by Biden’s personal skepticism about decriminalization and his unwillingness to dictate changes to the Justice Department.
Biden’s own opinion on marijuana is a product of both his age and the years he spent as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee working on crime bills. During the 2020 campaign, aides argued that he was waiting for new studies to come out that would inform a change in his position, but even without such studies, Biden was ultimately moved by arguments about inequity and injustice, particularly racially. lines.
White House aides were also keeping an eye on the calendar with the midterms in mind, hoping that the changes long sought by criminal justice advocates will help build enthusiasm among black voters, younger voters and a broader range of core Democratic voters.
Senior administration officials declined to say how quickly the review that would lead to more steps toward decriminalization could be completed.
“The process will take some time because it must be based on careful consideration of all available evidence, including available scientific and medical information,” a senior official said.
In his statement, Biden wrote that certain rules on marijuana would remain in place, even if the drug is cancelled.
“Even as federal and local regulations on marijuana change, important limitations on trafficking, marketing and sales to minors must be maintained,” he said.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, even as individual states have moved toward legal use for recreational and medical purposes. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is listed on Schedule 1, meaning it “has no currently accepted medical use and has a high potential for abuse.”
That has left some users open to prosecution, even in places where marijuana use is legal.
Biden’s pardons will be issued through an administrative process overseen by the Justice Department, a senior administration official said. Those eligible for pardons would receive a certificate showing that they had been officially pardoned for their crime.
Officials said there are currently no Americans serving time in prison solely for simple federal marijuana possession charges. But they said the number of people charged with that crime was more than 6,500.
As a candidate, Biden stopped short of endorsing the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. But he took a stance toward decriminalization.
“No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As president, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions,” he said during the presidential campaign.
The relaxation of federal rules on marijuana has gained momentum in recent years as the drug becomes legal in a growing number of states. In late 2020, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, though it was not addressed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
This story has been updated with additional reports.