US President Joe Biden has announced a sweeping pardon for thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal laws, penalties that have disproportionately affected Black and other people of colour across the United States.
The announcement on Thursday was seen as a enormous step towards federal decriminalisation of marijuana, a drug that has become legal for recreational use in more than a third of US states over the last decade.
Biden said the move reflects his view that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana”.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”
The order only applies to those convicted on federal charges of “simple marijuana possession” – a term that refers to drug possession for personal use, with no intent to distribute – and does not relate to those who have been convicted of possessing marijuana in state courts.
As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.
Today, I’m taking steps to end our failed approach. Allow me to lay them out.
— President Biden (@POTUS) October 6, 2022
In the statement, Biden urged US governors to take similar action to pardon state-level offences.
“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,” he said.
Biden did not say exactly how many people would receive pardons, but a senior US official told reporters that Thursday’s measure would affect about 6,500 people.
Criminal justice reform groups applauded the order, with JustLeadershipUSA President DeAnna Hoskins calling it “life-changing for thousands of Americans living with a federal marijuana conviction”.
That includes “both those who are currently incarcerated and those who have already served their sentences but have continued to carry the stigma and experience the collateral consequences of those convictions”, Hoskins said in a statement.
Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also called Biden’s decision an “important step toward righting the wrongs of the failed, racist War on Drugs”, referring to the federal campaign to criminalise drug use that began in the 1970s.
Thursday’s move follows a years-long effort by Democrats in the US House of Representatives and more recently in the Senate to legalise marijuana at the federal level.
States across the country also have rapidly moved in recent years to both decriminalise or outright legalise marijuana for recreational use.
Since Colorado legalised marijuana in 2012, another 19 states have followed suit, as well as the US territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and the federal district of Washington, DC.
Legal marijuana dispensaries and cultivation services, meanwhile, have become big business.
Biden’s order does not change federal law, which has since 1970 classified marijuana as a “schedule one” controlled substance, on par with heroin and LSD.
Biden noted that the marijuana classification is higher than that of “fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic“.
The US president said he had asked the secretary of health and human services, Xavier Becerra, and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review marijuana’s current classification.
He added that “important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales” of marijuana should stay in place as the country rolls back restrictions.
Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at nearly 4x the rate of white people.
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) October 6, 2022