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Biden Announces Mass Marijuana Pardons And Calls For Cannabis Scheduling Review

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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 people who have committed federal cannabis possession offenses while calling on governors to do the same for state-level convictions.

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,” the president said.

The White House estimates that about 6,500 people with federal cannabis convictions will be eligible for relief under the new order, and thousands of others whose local offenses took place in Washington, D.C. could also benefit.

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.

It’s not clear how long the review might take, but Biden stressed that he wants the agencies to process it “expeditiously.” It’s possible that the review 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.

On a background call with reporters ahead of the announcement, a senior administration official stressed that the president is simply asking for a review and isn’t specifically pushing for descheduling or reclassification to any particular schedule.

The official also reiterated that while Biden is asking for an expeditious review process, it’s still going to “take some time because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific and medical information that’s available.”

“This is meant to proceed swiftly. But, you know, this has to be a serious and considerate review of the available evidence,” they said. “So he’s not setting an artificial timeline, but he is saying this needs to be expeditious.”

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.

“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.”

In a presidential proclamation that was issued on Thursday, Biden said he’s granting “a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to all current United States citizens and lawful permanent residents who committed the offense of simple possession of marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act,” which will “restore to them full political, civil, and other rights.”

He also said in a statement that he’s “directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals.”

The call for action by governors to provide relief isn’t binding, but that component of the announcement could ultimately impact far more Americans if the top state officials abide, as the vast majority of people with marijuana convictions have been prosecuted at the state, rather than federal, level.

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 move also comes just days after a caucus representing the vast majority of House Republicans issued an agenda that opposes legalization and attempts to tie cannabis to suicide and violence.

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 lawmakersadvocates, 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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