President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that he is taking dramatic steps to change federal marijuana laws and provide relief to drug war victims—an unexpected development that comes roughly a month before the November election.
The president is initiating an administrative review of federal marijuana scheduling, and he also said that he will be granting mass pardons for federal cannabis possession convictions while calling on governors to do the same for state-level convictions.
First: I’m pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My pardon will remove this burden.
— President Biden (@POTUS) October 6, 2022
This is a massive development from the president, who has stayed relatively quiet on cannabis reform since taking office after campaigning on marijuana decriminalization, rescheduling and expungements for low-level cannabis convictions.
“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” he said in a statement. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.”
.@POTUS “As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana…Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach.”https://t.co/0BYghDEWsl
— Karine Jean-Pierre (@PressSec) October 6, 2022
The scheduling review—which would be conducted by the Justice Department and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—could fundamentally reshape federal marijuana policy. Biden has faced calls from advocates to use his executive authority to unilaterally initiate that process.
Third: We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense. I’m asking @SecBecerra and the Attorney General to initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
— President Biden (@POTUS) October 6, 2022
While it’s not clear how long the review might take, it’s possible that it could ultimately result in a recommendation to move marijuana from the strictest classification of Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to a lower schedule or no schedule at all.
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Biden has said he supports rescheduling to Schedule II, but advocates have pushed for complete descheduling, which would effectively end prohibition.
Of more immediate consequence, the president also said that he will be granting mass pardons to everyone with a federal conviction for cannabis possession—and he’s imploring governors across the U.S. to follow suit at the state level.
Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many states. That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right these wrongs.
— President Biden (@POTUS) October 6, 2022
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said.
“Finally, even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place,” he said. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
During his time in the Senate, Biden served as chair of the influential Judiciary Committee that helped shape U.S. drug policy during an era of heightened scaremongering and criminalization. At the time, he was among the most prominent Democratic drug warriors in Congress for decades.
The White House previously signaled that Biden would not be making any marijuana policy reform moves ahead of the election. But now he’s dropped what essentially amounts to a drug policy October surprise just before of the midterms.
The White House was previously asked about Biden’s plans to fulfill his cannabis campaign pledges in late August, with the press secretary saying that she didn’t have “anything to announce today at this point” after being asked about a recent call to action by Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for a U.S. Senate seat.
Biden and Fetterman did briefly discuss marijuana policy reform during a meeting near Pittsburgh on Labor Day, and a campaign spokesperson for the Senate candidate said the two talked about cannabis scheduling and executive authority to enact reform.
The president made his first public comments on marijuana issues since taking office after being pressed in July on whether he plans to follow through on his campaign pledge to release people who are incarcerated over non-violent federal cannabis offenses.
Biden reiterated at the time that he doesn’t believe people should be locked up over cannabis use, said that his administration is “working on” fulfilling that clemency promise and vaguely alluded to a crime bill that he suggested would address the issue.
Throughout his tenure, Biden has received about a dozen letters from lawmakers, advocates, celebrities and people impacted by criminalization to do something about the people who remain behind federal bars over cannabis.
Six senators—including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ)—sent a letter to Biden in July to express their frustration over the administration’s “failure” to substantively address the harms of marijuana criminalization and use executive clemency authority to change course.
They said that the administration’s current stance is “harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes.”
The recently appointed U.S. pardon attorney also recently weighed in on the prospects of mass cannabis clemency, telling Marijuana Moment that her office handles cases independently, but it could be empowered to issue broader commutations or pardons if directed by the president.
The White House has been asked about the issue several times. Former Press Secretary Jen Psaki had said that the president has “every intention of using his clemency power” and is “looking at” relief for non-violent drug offenders.
Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers have continued to work legislatively to put an end to cannabis criminalization.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Booker filed a much-anticipated bill to federally legalize cannabis and promote social equity in July, and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Booker subsequently held a hearing where members discussed the proposal.
But given the steep task of meeting the 60-vote threshold, the general expectation is that the comprehensive legislation will not advance this session, and conversations have pivoted toward putting together a package of more modest cannabis proposals such as protecting banks that work with marijuana businesses and expunging records of those residing in legal states.
For the time being, Senate Democrats are touting one piece of incremental marijuana reform legislation that passed the chamber back in April. The bipartisan bill is meant to streamline the process for scientists who want to access cannabis for research purposes.
That specific legislation hasn’t been enacted into law. But there are hopes that a slightly revised version that was introduced in July could reach the president’s desk in due time. It already cleared the House just days after its filing, and the Senate was prepared to hold an expedited vote on it last week, but it was delayed following the objection of a GOP senator.
If it makes it through the chamber and gets to Biden, who remains opposed to full federal marijuana legalization, it would mark the first piece of standalone marijuana reform legislation to ever become law.
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