(Headline USA) After trying to lure voters buy doling out debt forgiveness on student loans, and with Democrats still facing a midterm red wave, President Joe Biden announced he is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law.
Legalization advocates hailed it as his administration taking a dramatic step toward decriminalizing the drug and addressing charging practices that disproportionately impact people of color.
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 offenses, 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 U.S. 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.
Biden is also directing the secretary of Health and Human Services and the U.S. 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 decriminalizing 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 offenses emboldens criminals.
Advocacy groups praised Biden’s announcement, with Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, saying the organization 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 D.C. and decriminalized in 31 states.”
It remains to be seen whether governors follow Biden’s lead.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press