By Lauren Smith
Updated: 09 March 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon
Around 6,500 people have had their federal convictions for marijuana possession wiped by the White House, as President Joe Biden fulfills a campaign pledge and takes the U.S. closer to federal legalization. “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 earlier this month. “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.”
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How many people are impacted?
The pardons apply to those convicted of “simple marijuana possession,” a low-level offense. While no one is currently in federal prison for marijuana possession, around 6,500 people have previously been convicted. They will have the felony expunged from their criminal record, making it easier for them to obtain jobs, access education, and rent homes.
However, most people imprisoned for marijuana possession—an estimated 40,000 inmates, according to advocacy group the Last Prisoner Project—were convicted at the state level and won’t be impacted by the pardons.
States that have legalized the substance have already expunged or issued pardons on two million marijuana convictions. Biden urged governors to extend the pardons.
“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.
The pardons exclude the approximately 3,000 people convicted of higher-level federal marijuana offenses such as trafficking and distribution.
Rescheduling of marijuana
Biden also instructed the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Attorney General to review the scheduling of marijuana under federal law.
Marijuana is currently classified in Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin and LSD, as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In contrast, fentanyl and methamphetamine, responsible for the overdose epidemic across the U.S., are schedule 2 drugs.
Rescheduling of marijuana won’t come immediately, sources said.
Biden said that even if marijuana if de-scheduled, regulations applying to trafficking, marketing, and underage sales would stay in place.
Biden: from War on Drugs to decriminalization
Biden has been a late convert to drug decriminalization, having spent years at the head of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, pushing for tougher penalties “ to hold every drug user accountable” and suggesting the “War on Drugs” wasn’t going far enough.
During the 2020 campaign, he stopped short of embracing legalization but supported decriminalization and descheduling. Biden’s mind has reportedly been turned by arguments about the injustice of possession convictions and the disproportionate impact on Black Americans.