US President Joe Biden has announced a pardon for all individuals previously convicted of simple cannabis possession under federal law. While this doesn’t amount to legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in the US, the measure is likely to result in the expungement of around 6,500 criminal records.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” said the President in a statement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.”
For the record, the federal government very rarely prosecutes or incarcerates people for simple cannabis possession, and virtually all individuals currently in prison for this offense have been convicted by state laws. Federal pardons are therefore unlikely to directly result in anyone being released from jail, but will help thousands of people obtain jobs, accommodation, and other benefits.
Biden has called on all states to follow his lead and pardon all minor cannabis offenses within their jurisdiction. “I am urging all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses,” he said. “Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
Currently, recreational cannabis is fully legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, while medical cannabis is permitted 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 illegal at the federal level means that people can still be prosecuted for possessing the drug anywhere in the US.
Recognizing the need for wider reform, Biden said that he has requested a speedy review of federal cannabis laws, which currently place cannabis in Schedule I – a classification meant for only the most dangerous substances.
During his successful presidential election campaign, Biden stated his support for decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level and expunging all prior convictions, yet resisted calls from many senior Democrats to throw his weight behind full legalization. It’s therefore unclear whether the President will back any of the legalization bills that are currently working their way through the legislative pipeline.
What is clear, though, is that Biden’s stance on cannabis has softened significantly since his days as a senator. In 1994, he authored the now notorious Crime Bill, which introduced harsh prison sentences for minor cannabis 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 described the draconian measure as 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’s time that we right these wrongs,” he added. Fundamentally, however, this announcement changes nothing within the federal law, and will not free anyone currently in prison for simple cannabis possession.