President Joe Biden is taking his first major steps toward decriminalizing marijuana, fulfilling a campaign pledge to erase prior federal possession convictions and beginning the process of loosening federal classification of the drug.
Biden on Thursday will pardon all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, a move that senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans.
"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."
He will also encourage governors to take similar steps to pardon state simple marijuana possession charges, and will task the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to "expeditiously" review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
The moves stop short of full decriminalization, which has enjoyed growing support among both political parties. But they are the first significant steps taken by a US president toward removing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, even as individual states have moved toward legal use for recreational and medical purposes. Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is listed on Schedule 1, meaning it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
That has left some uses open to prosecution, even in places where marijuana use is legal.
As a candidate, Biden stopped short of endorsing legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. But he did adopt a stance toward decriminalization.
"No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As President, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions," he said during the presidential campaign.
Loosening federal rules on marijuana has gained steam in recent years as the drug is legalized in a growing number of states. In late 2020, the House passed a measure that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, though it wasn't taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
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