In early October, President Biden announced that he is issuing a blanket pardon for every person who has been convicted of “simple possession,” a legal term, under federal and DC law. The Justice Department is currently working on the administrative process that will make this pardon a reality.
Biden’s motivation behind the move is based in compassion for the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by the failed Reagan-era “War on Drugs” over the past decades. This invisible war has not only led to unnecessary penalties for drug possession, especially in 3-strike states, but has also contributed to the proliferation of the illegal drug trade and the opioid crisis. Federal convictions of any kind create lifelong barriers to success, and have disproportionately affected people of color on a severe level.
His move is also based in logic. Nearly 80% of US states – 38 out of 50 – have legalized medical marijuana, and it’s on the ballot for 5 additional states in November. Of those 38 states that have approved cannabis for medical use, 19 have also legalized recreational use. Why then, Biden posed, are people in jail for simply smoking and having marijuana on them? It doesn’t make sense.
Who Does Biden’s Federal Pardon Apply to? And Who is Excluded?
Biden’s blanket pardon doesn’t cover everyone convicted of marijuana-related crimes, however. People the pardon does apply to are lawful citizens who were federally convicted of simple possession of the drug from 1992 to today. This pardon only applies to around 6500 people, all of whom are no longer in prison.
The list of who this pardon doesn’t cover is much longer. As with any government move, there are caveats in the fine print:
- People convicted of simple possession at the state level, though Biden urged governors to follow his lead and administer pardons in their state jurisdictions
- People convicted of other types of drug possession
- Members of the military because first, Congress would have to approve any change of US military law
- People convicted of higher-level marijuana crimes like trafficking and intent to distribute
- Illegal immigrants convicted of simple possession
What Was the Goal of this Federal Pardon on Cannabis Possession Convictions?
Biden’s move has equally received praise and criticism. Supporters acknowledge that this is far and away the biggest move by the federal government towards decriminalizing marijuana on a federal level. Further, it erases the obstacles caused by federal criminal records for those 6500 people, and that’s not nothing.
Critics, however, say this move is a pittance. Not only does it not apply to simple possession crimes for other drugs, but it doesn’t apply to state-level convictions, which account for over 90% of all marijuana possession convictions. Just in 2020, 350,000 people were arrested in state jurisdictions for illegally possessing cannabis. There are currently 30,000 people in prison for state convictions of simple marijuana possession.
Biden made it extremely clear in announcing this pardon that this is merely a first step. The end goal is decriminalization of marijuana on a federal level which, ideally, will create a snowball effect for people convicted of simple possession for other illegal substances. As we all know, changing laws on contested subjects at the federal level can take decades. In the meantime, Biden advised governors to pardon marijuana possession convictions in their states, and expressed that his next step is changing marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I substance under federal law.
What Does This Move by Biden Mean for the Future of Cannabis Convictions in the US?
The ACLU estimated that between 2001 and 2010 there were 8.2 million arrests for marijuana-related crimes. Of that number, nearly 90% of marijuana-related arrests across the country were for simple possession. Isn’t that crazy? Whether you think this pardon was a big deal or not, and regardless of the real-life application and limitations of the move, the symbolic value of this gesture by Biden cannot be understated.
In a country that’s waking up to the harm punitive measures for illegal cannabis possession have caused over the years, coupled with the rapidly-increasing number of states legalizing medical marijuana as well as recreational use of marijuana, things will continue to change. More people will be able to get the holistic care they need to manage pain disorders and psychological ailments. More people and especially people of color will be able to safely consume cannabis without fear of a facetious conviction that causes irreparable and lifelong damage to their quality of life. As well, recent research suggests that medical marijuana consumption might be the key to handling the opioid crisis.
What do you think?
For resources on Biden’s pardon and how the US is reacting to the move, you can visit: