WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law, as his administration takes a dramatic step toward decriminalising the drug and addressing charging practices that disproportionately impact people of colour.
Biden's move also covers thousands convicted of the crime in the District of Columbia. He is also calling on governors to issue similar pardons for those convicted of state marijuana offences, which reflect the vast majority of marijuana possession cases.
Biden, in a statement, said the move reflects his position that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana".
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," he added. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
According to the White House, no one is currently in federal prison solely for “simple possession” of the drug, but the pardon could help thousands overcome obstacles to renting a home or finding a job.
“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. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions."
The pardon does not cover convictions for possession of other drugs, or for charges relating to producing or possessing marijuana with an intent to distribute. Biden is also not pardoning non-citizens who were in the US without legal status at the time of their arrest.
The announcement marks Biden's reckoning with the impact of 1994 crime legislation, which he supported, that increased arrest and incarceration rates for drug crimes, particularly for Black and Latino people.
The Department of Justice is working to devise a process for those covered by Biden's pardon to receive a certificate of pardon, which they can show to potential employers and others as needed.
“The Justice Department will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offence," the department said in a statement. “In coming days, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will begin implementing a process to provide impacted individuals with certificates of pardon.”
Biden is also directing the secretary of Health and Human Services and the US attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Rescheduling the drug would reduce or potentially eliminate criminal penalties for possession. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD, but ahead of fentanyl and methamphetamine. The White House did not set a timeline for the review.
But Biden said he believes that as the federal government and many states ease marijuana laws, they should maintain limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales.
The move by Biden puts the federal government on course with other big cities like New York that have been moving toward decriminalising low-level marijuana arrests for years. But there’s a big divide in the nation as some police departments still believe the drug leads to more serious crime and ignoring low-level offences emboldens criminals.
Advocacy groups praised Biden's announcement, with Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, saying the organisation was "thrilled".
“This is incredibly long overdue,” said Frederique. “There is no reason that people should be saddled with a criminal record - preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities - for something that is already legal in 19 states and DC and decriminalised in 31 states.”
It remains to be seen whether governors follow Biden's lead. Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said extending the action to states could help millions of Americans.
“Since 1965, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related violations - for activities that the majority of voters no longer believe ought to be a crime,” he said.
Chris Goldstein, 46, was arrested after smoking half a joint during a marijuana legalisation protest at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 2013. He paid a US$3,000 fine and spent two years on probation.
“As someone who voted for President Biden, I’ve been expecting this from the first day he came into office," Goldstein said. "This was a campaign promise.”
As a writer and activist who has been public about his conviction, he’s not sure that his criminal record was an obstacle to him getting a job, but he knows that it shows up in his background checks. And he’s shied away from visiting other countries because convictions can complicate international travel.
“I’m thrilled, and everyone like me is going to be just as thrilled," he said.
Reverend Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, said Biden's “righteous action today will give countless Americans their lives back." But he added, “The United States will never justly legalise marijuana until it reckons with the outdated policies that equated thousands of young Black men with hardened drug pushers."
The move also fulfils one of the top priorities of the Democratic nominee in one of their party's most critical Senate races, as Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has repeatedly pressed Biden to take the step, including last month when they met in Pittsburgh.
Fetterman, in a statement, took credit for elevating the issue on Biden's agenda and praised the decision, calling it “a massive step towards justice.”
“This action from President Biden is exactly what this work should be about: improving people’s lives. I commend the president for taking this significant, necessary, and just step to right a wrong and better the lives of millions of Americans,” he said.