(CN) — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced major steps for combating years of damage done by the government’s anti-cannabis policies, including pardons for all people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people nationally despite having similar usage rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In Kentucky and Montana, states where marijuana is fully illegal, Black people are over 9 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people. The ACLU attributes these statistics to racial profiling by law enforcement.
Biden’s announcement came with three steps that the president hopes will end what he describes as bad policy by the federal government.
The first is a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of cannabis. Simple possession refers to a small amount of a drug intended for personal use rather than for sale.
“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,” Biden said. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland is tasked with developing an administrative process to ensure that those who qualify will receive their pardon.
“As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," Biden said.
JM Pedini, development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said the group has been pushing Biden to deliver on his campaign promise since he took office.
“While these efforts are long overdue, we are incredibly pleased with President Biden following through on this pledge,” Pedini said Thursday.
The District of Columbia and 27 states have already decriminalized small amounts of cannabis. But in states where simple possession is illegal, Biden is urging governors to change their state laws as part of the second step in his plan.
“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,” Biden said.
The third and final step calls for Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to review how marijuana is classified under federal law. It is currently a schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD, peyote and ecstasy, ranked above methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl. A combined 128,632 Americans died of overdoses involving fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine in 2021, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pedini said NORML is hopeful that Biden will work with Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, a Nixon-era statute that regulates the use of certain substances.
“It is incumbent upon congress to pass a bill that will remove marijuana from the federal Substance Act,” Pedini said. “Now is the time for that action.”
States such as Georgia, Indiana and Kentucky currently only allow CBD products – which contain only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – while all other cannabis products remain illegal. Cannabis is illegal in all forms in Idaho, Wyoming and South Carolina.
The states that have fully legalized marijuana are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
Considering that nearly 40% of law enforcement did not submit arrest data to the FBI in 2021, it is hard to say how many Americans are currently in prison or jail for cannabis possession, according to the Marshall Project. The Last Prisoner Project estimates that the number is higher than 40,000 Americans.
Biden's pardons will apply to thousands of people convicted of simple possession under federal law, but most convictions happen at the state level. The president encouraged governors to pardon state simple possession charges, which would affect many more people.
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