President Joe Biden unveiled surprise, significant marijuana reform Thursday, directing a review of marijuana’s scheduling under federal law, announcing pardons for “all prior federal offenses of simple possession” and calling on governors to do the same with state charges.
Addressing marijuana’s classification in particular is a reform advocates have been calling for for years.
“The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a ‘schedule one’ substance, the same as heroin and LSD – and more serious than fentanyl,” Biden said in a video on the policy change. “It makes no sense. I’m asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”
While there’s considerable uncertainty around the implications of that plank of the reform — including timing and whether “initiating a review” will ultimately yield any change — it’s the piece of Thursday’s announcement that experts think could be the most impactful.
“The process to review scheduling, that is really the big ticket item,” Doug Berman, executive director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, told TPM.
Along with clearing the way for more state leniency, removing marijuana’s schedule one classification would open the door to research and medical trials.
Senior administration officials also said that thousands could be affected by the pardons for simple possession — and many more if governors follow Biden’s lead.
“Over 6,500 U.S. citizens from 1992 to 2021 were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law,” an official said Thursday. “There are thousands more who were convicted under D.C. code.”
The official added that getting governors’ buy-in will be critical, since “most of the marijana possession convictions are happening at the state level.”
The process will entail developing an administrative process to produce certificates of pardon for the eligible individuals, officials said.
While the pool of people these pardons apply to is relatively limited, it could spark further action.
“The call to governors is fascinating — I do think it could create more space, more comfort in Democratic governors doing more here,” Berman said. “Almost exclusively for blue state governors, marijuana-specific pardons are already afoot, but this may make it even easier for advocates to lean on governors in New York, California, some bigger states, to say let’s take it to the next level because the President says to do so.”
“I doubt we’ll see many red state governors do this, but there are a handful who are good on criminal justice issues,” he added.
The administration is framing the reform as one spurred by attempts to achieve social justice.
“It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden says in the video. “And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”