WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday he will take executive action to pardon thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.
Biden said he would also encourage governors to take similar action with state offenses and ask the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to review how marijuana is scheduled, or classified, under federal law.
The president’s action, a significant shift in the federal government’s approach to marijuana policy, is a step toward making good on his campaign commitment to decriminalize marijuana.
"Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit," Biden said in a statement. "Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates."
A senior administration official said that over 6,500 U.S. citizens were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law from 1992 to 2021 and that thousands more were convicted under a Washington, D.C., code. No one is in federal prison solely for simple possession of marijuana, and most marijuana possession convictions occur at the state level, the official said.
Federal law classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin and LSD.
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for adults over age 21, and 37 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. Five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — are voting in November whether to legalize marijuana for adults.
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said thousands of people with prior convictions for marijuana possession are denied housing, employment or educational opportunities. “This pardon will help relieve those collateral consequences,” they said.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it would take steps to issue people certificates of pardon in the coming days.
The president’s decision comes just weeks before the midterm elections, in which Democrats are defending their slim majorities in both the House and the Senate. A Gallup poll in November found that 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The House passed legislation in April to legalize marijuana nationwide, but the bill faces a murky future in the evenly split Senate.