‘Today we begin to right these wrongs’ – US President Joe Biden announces HISTORIC cannabis reforms

Could this be the beginning of the end of the ‘war on drugs’?

by Jay Jackson

US President Joe Biden has officially announced that all prior federal offences of cannabis possession are to be pardoned, urging state governors and legislators to do the same. 

In a significant step towards fulfilling his US presidential election campaign pledge to decriminalise cannabis use, Biden on Thursday pardoned all prior federal offences of simple marijuana possession. 

Whilst currently nobody is in federal prison solely for possession of marijuana as most convictions occur at state level, US officials estimate about 6,500 people with federal convictions for possession of marijuana will benefit.

Biden’s pardons will be issued through an administration process overseen by the Justice Department, a senior administration official said. Those eligible for the pardons would receive a certificate showing they had been officially forgiven for their crime.

The move will be nothing short of transformative for the lives of people currently living with these convictions, given the extremely detrimental impact a criminal record has on job prospects, housing, travel and a number of other life opportunities. It will also have an outsized impact on the lives of people of colour, given their disproportionate rate of conviction for drug possession offences.

Cannabis is already legal recreationally in 19 states and Washington DC, whilst medical use is legal in 37 states and three US territories. However, confusingly, weed remains illegal at the federal level, even in states where it can be legally bought and used, meaning people there could still be convicted for possession in certain circumstances. 

In late 2020, the House passed a measure that would decriminalise marijuana at the federal level, though it wasn’t taken up in the then Republican-controlled Senate. More recently, the senate (now in Democrat hands) has passed similar legislation, but the House has yet to vote on it.

President Biden is not the first US president to pardon those convicted of cannabis offences. At the end of his presidency, Donald Trump pardoned 12 people, including some who had been jailed for life under the three-strikes rule created by Biden’s infamous 1994 crime bill that significantly toughened sanctions for drug offences and created a huge racial disparity in the US criminal justice system. 

In his long career in the US Senate, Biden, who over the years expressed strong opposition to legalising cannabis, was an architect or supporter of tough-on-crime legislation, including the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also known as the “drug czar,” and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana. 

In addition to the pardons, Biden has asked Health & Human Services Secretary, Xavier Beccera and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review the schedule of cannabis under federal law – it is currently classified at the same level as Heroin and above fentanyl.

In a series of tweets, the President said ‘no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.’

According to CNN, ‘The President and a small circle of White House aides had been wrangling for weeks over the changes, complicated both by Biden’s own personal scepticism about decriminalisation and not wanting to dictate changes to the Justice Department.’

The timing of the announcement is not random or coincidental. White House aides have been watching the calendar with the upcoming midterms in mind, hoping that the changes long sought by criminal justice advocates will help build enthusiasm among Black voters, younger voters and a wider array of core Democratic voters. 

With the backlash against the Roe vs Wade Supreme court ruling and now this progressive cannabis reform, it is clear Biden is intent on campaigning on issues of social justice. 

The move should be viewed in the context of a US initiated and led ‘war on drugs’ that has caused untold misery and damage across the globe, and President Biden’s significant individual role in creating the racial disparities he is now seeking to overturn. 

But make no mistake, this is a monumental step towards enacting social justice in drug policies. Whilst similar pardons have been enacted elsewhere, the symbolism of it being done in the US means that a precedent has now been set that will be hard for other countries to ignore when they inevitably join the growing number of nations enacting progressive cannabis reforms around the world. 

You can read the full statement from the White House here.

This piece was written by Jay Jackson, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at Volteface. Tweets @wordsbyjayj


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