US President Joe Biden announced a pardon for all people previously convicted of simple possession of cannabis under federal law. While this does not amount to the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in the US, the measure is likely to result in the expungement of approximately 6,500 criminal records.
“Sending people to prison for possession of marijuana has upended too many lives and imprisoned people for behavior that many states no longer prohibit,” the President said in a statement. “Criminal records for possession of marijuana have also imposed unnecessary barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities.”
Historically, the federal government very rarely prosecutes or imprisons people for simple possession of cannabis, and almost all people currently in prison for this offense have been convicted under state laws. As such, the federal pardon is unlikely to immediately result in anyone being released from prison, but it will help thousands of people get jobs, housing and other benefits.
Biden called on all states to follow his lead and pardon all minor cannabis-related offenses within their jurisdictions. “I urge all governors to do the same with regard to state crimes,” he said. “Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely for possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local or state prison for that reason.”
Currently, recreational cannabis is fully legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, while medical cannabis is allowed in 37 states. However, many legal states have been slow to expunge the records of those with prior convictions, and the fact that cannabis remains federally illegal means that people can be prosecuted for possession of the drug anywhere in the US.
Recognizing the need for broader reform, Biden said he called for a swift overhaul of federal cannabis laws, which currently place cannabis in Schedule I — a classification reserved for only the most dangerous substances.
During his successful campaign, Biden declared his support for the federal decriminalization of cannabis and the elimination of all prior convictions, but he resisted calls from many top Democrats to throw his weight behind full legalization. Therefore, it is unclear whether the President will support any of the legalization bills currently moving through the legislative pipeline.
What is clear, however, is that Biden’s stance on cannabis has softened considerably since his days as a senator. In 1994, he wrote the now-infamous Crime Bill, which introduced harsh prison sentences for minor cannabis-related offenses and is often blamed for the high levels of incarceration in the US. The bill has disproportionately affected minority communities, and the President recently called the draconian measure a “mistake.”
“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,” he said in his recent statement.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It is time to correct these mistakes,” he added. Basically, however, this announcement changes nothing under federal law and will not release anyone currently in prison for simple possession of cannabis.