WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced he will take executive action to pardon thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.
Biden said he would also encourage governors to take similar action with state offenses and would ask the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
The president’s action marks a significant shift in the federal government’s approach to marijuana policy and takes a step towards making good on his campaign commitment to decriminalize marijuana.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And 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.”
A senior administration official said that over 6,500 U.S. citizens from 1992 — 2021 were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law, and thousands more were convicted under a Washington, D.C. code. There are currently no individuals in federal prison solely for simple possession of marijuana and most marijuana possession convictions occur at the state level, the official said.
Federal law currently classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, the same classification as heroin and LSD.
Nineteen states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and 37 states and DC have legalized medical marijuana. Five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — are voting in November whether to legalize marijuana for adults.
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said that thousands of people with prior convictions for marijuana possession are denied housing, employment or educational opportunities as a result. “This pardon will help relieve those collateral consequences,” they said.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that it would take steps to issue individuals with certificates of pardon in the coming days.
The president’s decision comes just weeks before the midterm elections in which Democrats are defending their slim majorities in both the House and Senate. A Nov. 2021 poll from Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The House passed legislation in April legalizing marijuana nationwide, but the bill faces a murky future in the evenly split Senate.