COLUMN: Biden’s pardon is not enough to legalize marijuana possession nationally


President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of governors and mayors in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure deal in the Senate. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of illegally possessing marijuana under federal law on Thursday. The Biden administration is reviewing whether marijuana should be in the same category as LSD and heroin.

The pardons will clear everyone charged with ‘simple possession’ of marijuana since it became a crime in the 1970s under the Controlled Substances Act. The pardon comes weeks before the midterm elections  determining the control of Congress and is likely a political calculation aimed towards young voters.

Although the pardons are just the beginning of marijuana decriminalization, the Biden Administration should go further to completely deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. If marijuana remains on the federal drug schedule, people will still face criminal charges for marijuana use and possession. 

The pardons will not apply to people convicted of selling or distributing marijuana.

“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many states,” Biden said on Twitter. “Today, we begin to right these wrongs.”

Biden’s actions represent a fundamental move toward nationally legalizing marijuana possession in the U.S.,  changing America’s response to a drug that has been at the forefront of cultural and policing issues for decades.

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in a video. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, to housing, and educational opportunities.”

Officials told the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 6,500 people were convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law between 1992 and 2021. Thousands more were convicted under D.C. drug laws.

More people have faced criminal charges for marijuana possession in state courts across the country. Although Biden’s pardons will help people charged with possession under federal law, most convictions happen at the state level, leaving it up to the governors to issue pardons.

In 2018 alone, nearly 700,000 people were arrested for illegal marijuana possession nationwide, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Biden’s proclamation falls short of calling for the complete decriminalization of marijuana. However, the pardons adhere to most states’ already lax policies on marijuana possession which have reduced or eliminated criminal charges for possession of the drug.

Currently, 19 states have legalized marijuana recreationally and 38 states have legalized medical use of marijuana. Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota have legalization measures on the ballots for the November midterms.

Biden is urging state governors to take similar actions to decriminalize marijuana. He is also asking Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to review whether marijuana should be classified as a Schedule 1 substance. He claims classifications like this should only be reserved for the most dangerous of substances.

There are no people currently serving time in federal prison for marijuana possession, so unless the states decide to legalize the drug, it is only useful in clearing offenders’ records. However, the president’s action will help remove barriers to getting jobs, finding housing or applying to college for offenders convicted of marijuana possession.