President Joe Biden has taken a bold step to address the racial disparities and injustices caused by the federal prohibition of cannabis. On Friday, he announced a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, as well as a clemency grant for 11 people serving disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
A New Approach to Cannabis Justice
Biden said in a statement that his actions would help make the “promise of equal justice a reality” and that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana”. He also called on governors and local leaders to follow his example and pardon state offenses of marijuana possession.
The president’s pardon covers thousands of people who have prior federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. It also applies to certain offenses committed on federal lands and in the District of Columbia. The pardon does not apply to those who were in the U.S. unlawfully at the time of their offense.
The clemency grant commutes the sentences of 11 people who are serving “disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug offenses” and who would have received lower sentences if they were charged today. Biden said that his administration will continue to review clemency petitions and deliver reforms that advance equal justice, address racial disparities, strengthen public safety, and enhance the well-being of all Americans.
A Shift in Federal Cannabis Policy
Biden’s actions reflect a significant shift in the federal cannabis policy, as marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law. U.S. regulators are studying reclassifying the drug from the category of drugs deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, known as “Schedule I”, to the less tightly regulated “Schedule III”.
The president’s pardon also follows his previous proclamation in October 2022, which pardoned many federal and D.C. offenses for simple marijuana possession. Biden said that he has exercised his clemency power more than any recent predecessor has at this point in their presidency.
Biden’s actions are also in line with the growing public support and state-level reforms for cannabis legalization. More than half of the U.S. states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, or both. According to a recent Gallup poll, 68% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, the highest level of support in the history of the survey.
A Positive Impact for Cannabis Advocates and Communities
Biden’s pardon and clemency have been welcomed by cannabis advocates and communities, who have long campaigned for the end of the federal prohibition of cannabis and the expungement of cannabis-related convictions. They have argued that the war on drugs has disproportionately harmed people of color, who are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for cannabis offenses than white people, despite similar rates of use.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) praised Biden’s actions as “a historic step forward” and “a long-overdue recognition of the failed and discriminatory nature of marijuana criminalization”. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) also applauded Biden’s actions as “a positive development” and “a step in the right direction”
However, some cannabis advocates and activists have also urged Biden to do more to end the federal prohibition of cannabis and to support the comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that is pending in Congress. They have also called for the release of all people who are incarcerated for cannabis offenses, not just those who are eligible for the pardon or clemency.