(888) 908-0143
English Spanish

President Biden’s Pardon for Cannabis Convictions

On Thursday, October 6th, President Biden issued a landmark announcement to pardon thousands of Americans for personal-use cannabis possession.  Individuals who have a previous or current federal charge will receive a formal pardon in the coming weeks. 

The landmark announcement fulfills Biden’s Presidential campaign promise to move toward federal decriminalization. No exact number has been released to indicate the number of Americans that the pardon will positively impact.  However, estimates suggest it will affect several thousand people across the country.

Since the 1930s, when federal cannabis prohibition began, there have been more than twenty (20) million arrests for possession.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there is an arrest for a cannabis-related offense every 0.01 hours in the United States.  And today, cannabis possession accounts for more than 50% of all federal and state criminal charges for controlled substance offenses. 

The sweeping pardon for Americans with federal cannabis charges is a follow-up to the pardons issued in April 2022.  President Joe Biden used the authority to issue clemency for the first time, commuting the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders. In April, the President renewed his commitment to take further action on cannabis incarceration rates in the country.

Democracy and freedom to protest concept. Young European people fighting for legal recreational cannabis. Green flags with white weed-shaped leaf.

Deposit Photos

While the announcement may seem sudden, President Joe Biden has worked to pass a number of laws during his thirty-six years in the Senate. All of which laid the groundwork for this moment to allow for mass pardon and expungement of non-violent cannabis-related offenses. 

Addressing Racial Bias for Cannabis-Related Charges

If you were to look at the difference in arrest rates between black and white Americans, it would be easy to make some inaccurate assumptions about the use of cannabis. But social policy and regulatory data in the past ten years have irrefutably proven arrest bias for black and brown Americans. Particularly related to criminal charges for cannabis.

In 2020, the ACLU released a report called “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform.” The report shared statistics for marijuana arrests in the United States from 2010 to 2018. And found that black and brown Americans were 3.78 times more likely to be arrested for personal-use cannabis charges. 

President Biden addressed the racial bias in cannabis arrests. And the devastating impact it has had on black communities in the United States, calling for immediate change:

President Biden Cannabis Pardons 2022

While this was not the first report on racial bias and disproportionate cannabis arrest rates from the ACLU, it was by far the most impactful.  By 2020, the majority of states had already legalized cannabis for medicinal use, and some for adult use (recreational). 

From the ACLU report and other recent studies, states also began incorporating social equity considerations into their cannabis regulations. As part of an effort toward reparation to black American communities, many states reserve marijuana business licenses for social equity applicants. That provides equal opportunity for black and brown American entrepreneurs to own and operate cannabis-related businesses. 

Cannabis arrests 2021

President Encourages State Lawmakers to Follow Suit

President Biden openly encouraged state lawmakers to enact similar measures. The majority of Americans who have been charged with a criminal offense for cannabis were convicted at the state level. 

Does it make sense that there are American men and women who are currently incarcerated for simple possession charges? When twenty-seven (27) states have legalized medical and/or recreational use?  

The President also addressed the lifelong impact that a criminal charge for marijuana can inflict. Citizens with a current or previous cannabis charge face significant disadvantages when it comes to acquiring housing with a criminal record.  

Financially, individuals with a previous felony or misdemeanor charge may not qualify for lending (including mortgages) and student loans.  A cannabis charge can also make an individual disqualified from specific types of occupations and certifications.

This is why advocacy groups are pushing for mass expungement.  Beyond pardoning Americans charged with possession, expungement would wipe the incident from public record. Giving millions of citizens in the United States a “fresh start” and the opportunity to free themselves from the stigma and punitive fallout from a previous cannabis charge. 

States Moving Toward Criminal Record Expungement for Cannabis Possession

Some states have been working on the next step, by drafting new marijuana legal measures.  In jurisdictions where cannabis is legalized for medical use, people who are not on the state registry still face severe legal consequences for possession. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the criminalization of cannabis in the United States. Today, given the social and cultural shift of marijuana use in America, the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug seems more than outdated. It seems unjust for individuals charged with personal possession.

release from prison cannabis charges USA
Deposit Photos

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1706 in September 2022 for residents in the state with prior legal convictions.  The new law will seal historical data about marijuana charges for non-violent and first-time offenses. 

Many states enacted criminal policy reform when they legalized medical or adult-use cannabis.  This includes New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia.  Some states have also started the process of mandating automatic expungement for non-violent and non-distribution marijuana offenses. 

Will Cannabis be Rescheduled by Amending the Controlled Substances Act?

It is unlikely that marijuana (given the psychoactive effects) will ever be removed from the Controlled Substances Act.  However, many people believe that it should be rescheduled.  That means classifying cannabis differently than life-threatening drugs that have a higher potential for addiction or overdose.

Schedule I drugs are defined as having a high potential for abuse, and no “currently accepted medical use”. Drugs classified in the Controlled Substances Act as Schedule 1 include:

  • Heroin
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy)
  • Methaqualone
  • Peyote
  • Cannabis

Schedule II drugs are also defined as dangerous substances with a high potential for abuse, leading to severe physical or psychological dependence.  But Schedule II drugs according to the Controlled Substance Act are “less dangerous” than Schedule I compounds. 

Drugs currently classified as Schedule II substances include:

  • Cocaine
  • Vicodin
  • Methamphetamine
  • Methadone
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Fentanyl 
  • Dexedrine
  • Adderall
  • Ritalin

Reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule III drug with known medicinal and symptom management benefits would help reduce sentencing and fines for personal-use possession charges.  That would place marijuana in the same definition as ketamine, which has been federally approved for off-label therapeutic prescription at the discretion of primary care physicians. 

According to Marijuana Moment, “The Department of Justice said it will “expeditiously administer” the president’s marijuana pardon proclamation, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said he is “looking forward” to working on the separate cannabis scheduling review that’s being  directed.”

Grassroots Fundraiser with Vice President Biden, Dr. Biden, Senator Kamala Harris, and Doug Emhoff – Wilmington, DE – August 21, 2020” by Biden For President is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.