“Too many lives have been disrupted because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in a video statement. “It’s time we righted those wrongs.” He added, “There are thousands of people who have been convicted of possession of marijuana and may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result.”
The marijuana classification review, which will be led by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland, could answer a long-standing question about whether possession of marijuana – deemed legal in several states – should eventually be decriminalized at the federal level. .
Although Biden did not fully endorse decriminalization, his announcement energized activists who pushed for it.
“Many of the efforts made and proposed by the President today are long overdue,” says Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, which advocates legalization. Since 1965, he said, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses that most Americans believe should be legal.
In describing the actions, Biden said it was a matter of common sense and fairness, saying “it doesn’t make sense” for marijuana to be treated the same as heroin in under federal law. He also argued that the consequences of possessing the drug were often too harsh and long-lasting.
“While whites, blacks and browns use marijuana at similar rates, blacks and browns have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said.
Still, Biden’s views on the subject haven’t always been so clear cut. In 2019, during the presidential campaign, Biden said marijuana could be a “gateway drug” leading to more serious abuse, a position out of step with his party’s growing sentiment for easing marijuana penalties.
Although no one is currently serving time in federal prison solely for the crime of simple possession of marijuana, officials said, about 6,500 people have such convictions on their records. Those convictions would be pardoned and the offenders’ records expunged, through an administrative process to be worked out by Garland.
Thousands of additional people who reside in the district, which is subject to federal law, could also be pardoned, officials said. Others affected could be those arrested at places such as airports and federal parks, which fall under federal law enforcement jurisdiction.
Biden’s actions, however, do not directly affect the vast majority of marijuana-related convictions, which are prosecuted under state law. Biden administration officials have said the president will use his action to encourage state governors to offer massive pardons under their own authority.
“Marijuana politics is a place where politics is finally catching up with culture,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. “The decriminalization of marijuana has bipartisan support and also happens to be very good policy. This will help President Biden not only with his base but also with other constituencies that find a religion in the war on drugs.
The president’s move continues a drive to roll back some of the deepest impacts of the war on drugs that began roughly half a century ago, just as Biden entered the US Senate. America’s prison population, the largest in the world, has exploded as a result of pressure to crack down on drug use, and some Republicans and Democrats have since sought to move away from punishment and instead focus on treating drug addiction and other alternatives.
Biden, who once chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and backed tough drug laws in the 1980s and 1990s, has previously come under fire from some Democrats for taking a harder line on criminal justice than many in the House. left. But as president, he stepped back from those positions, taking executive action to address police misconduct and pardon nonviolent offenders.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans support Biden’s decisions. A 2021 Pew Research Center Poll found that 67% of Americans supported the release of those detained solely for marijuana-related offenses. And 61% favored removing or deleting marijuana-related offenses from criminal records.
More broadly, the poll found that 57% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, and 31% prefer it for medical purposes only.
And one Gallup Poll November 2021 found that 68% said marijuana use should be legal, up from 31% in 2000.
But Biden’s moves carry political risks, as Republicans have spent much of the past year accusing the president and Democrats of being soft on crime, linking rising incidents of violence and addiction to liberal policies.
“Amid a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is granting a blanket pardon to drug addicts – many of whom have pleaded to more serious charges,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter Thursday. “This is a desperate attempt to divert attention from failing leadership.”
But many Republicans have softened their views on marijuana use as the culture has changed, and some now say the matter should be left to the states.
Rep. Nancy Mace (RS.C.), who pushed for legislation that would release prisoners arrested for simple possession and expunge the records of those convicted of nonviolent cannabis use, said she was very supportive of the Biden’s decision and spoke with the White House on Thursday.
Mace added that “the devil is in the details” to get other Republicans on board.
“There are simple, non-violent possession users who are behind bars who shouldn’t be. And they were punished in this very harmful and expensive war against a factory,” Mace said in an interview. “We see this wave of reform rolling across the country, and it’s long overdue for Congress to address it.”
Biden appeared to try to get ahead of Republican critics in his videotaped remarks, arguing the changes would not impact large-scale narcotics trafficking or the crime of selling marijuana to children.
“Even as federal and local marijuana regulations change, significant limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales should remain in place,” he said.
And some Democrats have actively promoted the idea of decriminalizing marijuana, including Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, who said he spoke to Biden about the issue last month. “This is a BFD and a massive step towards justice,” Fetterman tweeted Thursday.
While parts of Biden’s announcement will have immediate implications — particularly the decision to pardon federal marijuana possession offenses — his order to Becerra and Garland to expedite a review of how marijuana is ‘programmed’ is much more complicated and could take months or even years to complete, said Andrew Freedman, executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation.
Freedman, who served as Colorado’s cannabis czar in 2014 when the state legalized marijuana, pointed to ongoing tension between many states that have eased restrictions on marijuana and tough laws that remain in place today. pertaining to the federal government.
“This is the start of a real good national conversation of ‘Okay, there’s a reality that states have started to legalize this in different ways, and the feds can no longer sustain the position that this is banned,'” Freedman said. .
Schedule I substances, which currently include marijuana, are those that have been found to be potentially extremely harmful and have no medical benefit. In his statement, Biden noted that marijuana has a higher classification than fentanyl and methamphetamine, which have spawned a fatal overdose and addiction epidemic nationwide.
However, postponing marijuana use would require input from multiple agencies. First, HHS should conclude that there is enough research to find that cannabis has a potential medical benefit, Freedman said.
This finding would then be taken to the Drug Enforcement Administration to make a recommendation on how marijuana should be programmed. From there, the Food and Drug Administration — which reports to HHS — would make its own recommendation and send it to the attorney general.
The process can typically take several years, Freedman said, but depending on Biden’s pressure on agencies to expedite the review, the administration could complete the review within two years. But even reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule 2 substance — meaning it might have medicinal benefits but is still harmful — wouldn’t change much of the reality on the ground, Freedman said. .
The push to decriminalize marijuana began in earnest in the 1990s as a reaction to the Reagan-era “war on drugs,” which activists said resulted in penalties that were too harsh. Initially, they argued for allowing medical marijuana because research suggested that it could relieve pain and nausea.
Five states and the District of Columbia approved medical marijuana in the 1990s, and eight others join them in the 2000s. And as the cultural battles of the 1960s waned, states allowed recreational use as well, with Colorado in 2014 becoming the first to authorize special dispensaries sell marijuana for recreational purposes.
Currently, 37 states and DC allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, while 19 states allow the drug for recreational purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. But even as states moved toward greater acceptance, the federal government continued to treat it as dangerous and illegal, creating unusual tension between the two.
Five states have cannabis laws on the ballot in November, potentially adding to the momentum. Meanwhile, at least some federal lawmakers applauded Biden’s decision.
“Cannabis justice is racial justice!” tweeted Representative Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.