President Biden on Thursday announced he’ll pardon thousands of people with federal marijuana possession convictions, and ordered a review of the plant’s classification as a “Schedule I” drug.
The moves stand in sharp contrast to Biden’s career in the Senate, where he helped create a regime for the mass incarceration of people convicted under drug laws.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” said Biden in a statement.
His pardons will apply to nearly everyone convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law, but not to those convicted of selling or distributing it. It has no effect on the far greater population of people with state convictions.
While no firm tally has been released, officials say some 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession under federal law between 1992 and 2021 alone. The pardons will also clear thousands more convicted under the laws of the District of Columbia.
The move won’t free anyone from federal prison: Officials say there’s nobody behind federal bars today for possession alone. However, cleaner records will help eliminate barriers to finding jobs, leasing homes, receiving an education or receiving certain federal benefits.
“I am urging all governors to do the same with regard to state offenses,” said Biden. “Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
Despite his administration’s welcoming posture toward illegal immigrants, Biden is not pardoning non-citizens who were in the country illegally at the time they were arrested.
In addition to the pardons, Biden did something else that has more far-reaching potential to bring a dose of rationality to federal regulation of intoxicants: He ordered Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Bacerra to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act.
Under that law, drugs are classified into five “schedules.” In positively hallucinogenic fashion, marijuana is included in the most extreme Schedule I, reserved for drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
Marijuana’s Schedule I status has made it far harder for researchers to study the plant’s medical promise — which has in turn helped the drug warriors’ justify keeping it in Schedule I.
On the other hand, fentanyl — which killed tens of thousands of people in 2021 — is in the less severe Schedule II. “It makes no sense,” said Biden in a welcome moment of lucidity.
Cannabis stocks surged on the news: Tilray Brands spiked 31% and then another 11% in after-hours trading. Canopy Growth — which, like Tilray primarily operates in Canada — rose 20% and then another 5% after the close.
“De-scheduling would allow a Nasdaq-listed company like High Tide to begin selling cannabis in legal states,” said High Tide Chief Executive Raj Grover, who called Biden’s move a “game-changer.”
While Biden’s moves are a step in the right direction, they leave most of the counterproductive, unconstitutional and authoritarian federal marijuana regime fully intact. They also introduce a new thread of irrationality into the scheme, writes Jacob Sullom at Reason:
“The moral logic of Biden’s distinction between simple possession and other marijuana offenses is hard to follow. He says using marijuana should not be treated as a crime. If so, how can helping people use marijuana justify sending anyone to prison?”
Meanwhile, despite her own dismal record as an eager drug warrior, Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t help chiming in on Twitter, declaring, “This is a step forward in correcting the historical injustices of failed drug policies.”
In a 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate, then-Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard memorably eviscerated Harris over her past pursuit of marijuana convictions, putting a dagger in her presidential aspirations:
Tulsi Gabbard bodying Kamala Harris, just tearing off mask:
"I'm concerned about this record of Senator Harris. She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana."
— Django✯ (@SleepyDjango) August 1, 2019