The move is expected to affect more than 6,500 people convicted on federal pot charges.
US President Joe Biden is set to pardon thousands of Americans found guilty of simple cannabis possession, taking executive action to reverse federal convictions while urging state governments to follow suit.
The White House announced the move on Thursday, with Biden vowing to help “right [the] wrongs” of past drug policy on both the federal and state level – a promise he repeatedly made as a candidate on the campaign trail before the 2020 election.
“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” he said. “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.”
Officials could not provide a hard number for how many Americans are currently behind bars for cannabis possession, but noted that around 6,500 people were convicted on federal charges between 1992 and 2021 in US states and thousands more in the District of Columbia.
In addition to the pardons, which will come after a review process overseen by Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden called on governors to issue their own clemency for marijuana possession on the state level, and said he would tap officials to begin reconsidering how cannabis is treated under federal law. It is currently a Schedule 1 substance, the highest classification reserved for the most dangerous drugs with no accepted medicinal use.
“This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic,” the president continued.
While Biden effectively urged for an overhaul of US cannabis policy, he said “important” limitations on “trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales” should remain in place.
Since California first legalized medicinal cannabis in 1996, 35 other states have followed suit, while 19 have removed most criminal penalties for recreational use by adults. However, the plant remains illegal on the federal level under the 1971 Controlled Substances Act, meaning federal law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) may still arrest offenders for simple possession, as well as the manufacture, transport or sale of the drug.