In a press conference on October 6th, President Joe Biden announced that he would be granting mass pardons to all past marijuana users and current prisoners suffering from the federal consequences of simple possession.
The president also called for all state governments to end their own criminalization of marijuana use and asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the Attorney General, to act “expeditiously” in revisiting marijuana’s class of being a Schedule 1 drug.
Biden’s announcement brings several questions to the table on what this means for those who were pardoned and those still imprisoned. It also brings hope that this will initiate an imminent conversation about federal marijuana legalization. Let’s review.
A presidential pardon: What it means for those affected
A pardon indicates forgiveness and restoration of rights to those convicted. A prisoner who receives a pardon “shall restore to them full political, civil, and other rights.”
Biden’s pardon affects 6,500 people convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level. None of these people remain in prison today. However, they will benefit from expunged criminal records.
Without a felony on their record, pardoned marijuana offenders won’t face barriers to:
- Applying for a job
- Renting an apartment or trying to rent an apartment
- Apply to college
Receive federal benefits
What the federal pardon means for state offenders
Biden’s announcement doesn’t immediately help 30,000 people still in prison in several states. Still, it ignites a meaningful conversation with governors of those states who could grant pardons due to the federal precedent.
In an interview, Kevin Sabet, an opponent of marijuana legalization, said that Biden's pardons could serve as a model for governors in conservative states that oppose decriminalization but also oppose prison terms for simple possession.
Jennifer E. Cobbina-Dungy, a Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University also had a positive outlook. “The President’s pardon will help many people who were incarcerated for simple marijuana possession leave prison and hopefully successfully integrate back to the free world.”
As for the reality of how states will respond, it’s too soon to know for sure.
What does Biden’s announcement mean for federal marijuana classification?
Currently, marijuana is a schedule one drug, which means it has no medical benefits and is highly addictive, according to the U.S. government. Marijuana shares this classification with crack cocaine, PCP, and heroin, among other life-threatening drugs. This designation disregards the fact that marijuana has claimed zero lives while nearly 142,000 Americans died in 2021 from less dangerous drugs in the same classification system.
Biden, in his tweets, admits: “It makes no sense.” that marijuana should be classified “at the same level as heroin and more serious than fentanyl,” suggesting he thinks the Attorney General should categorize marijuana at, or possibly below Schedule III. This reclassification would effectively lift prohibition, making research on this plant easier, and creating a more defined path toward federal legalization.
Is the Attorney General on board?
It is unclear how exactly Merrick Garland will respond. However, his cannabis policy statement from last year could indicate where he stands today. We can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes…and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession. We can look at our charging policies and stop charging the highest possible offense with the highest possible sentence.”
What is the timeline for changes?
The pardons have taken immediate effect. However, the timeline for any legislative change to state laws and DEA scheduling of marijuana is speculative. Biden requested an “expeditious” process, but many roadblocks are still ahead to gaining bipartisan support and reviewing the scheduling of marijuana, which could take months to years.
What are the implications of reclassifying marijuana to schedule II or III?
Suppose Garland reclassifies marijuana as a Schedule II or III substance. In that case, it will allow more research into the plant's benefits and possible drawbacks with much less government interference and fewer restrictions.
Reclassifying marijuana below Schedule III could also lead to downstream cost-savings for dispensary customers. Today, dispensaries pay a much higher tax rate than standard businesses due to marijuana’s Schedule I designation. Reclassification would eliminate those prohibitive tax rules, allowing dispensaries to pass savings onto customers.
Rescheduling marijuana also means less strict and severe punishments for using and possessing the plant. Eliminating severe penalties is good news for everyone–especially people who live in states without legal marijuana programs.
What are the implications of descheduling marijuana altogether?
Removing marijuana from the DEA’s drug scheduling system is the first step to achieving federal legalization. This act would put marijuana in a similar category to over-the-counter meds and alcohol, kickstarting a regulatory process federally and in each state nationwide.
What are the next steps?
The next steps are perhaps the most important: Americans must voice their opinions to politicians at all levels of government.
Approximately 68% of Americans believe marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use. That means 224 million Americans should contact political leaders, expressing support for Biden’s statement as well as current Senate marijuana bills pushing for common sense drug reform.
Biden’s announcement: a game-changer or a political play?
Biden’s announcement seems like a drug reform game-changer. At the same time, skeptics point to the curious timing of his announcement–right before the midterm elections. To prove his statement wasn’t a political play for votes, Biden and his administration will need to take meaningful action in the team leading up to the 2024 presidential election.
Biden’s announcement regarding marijuana pardons and reclassification is historic. At Medical Mike’s, we couldn't be happier about the 6,500 pardons and the progress toward personal freedom. With time and political motivation, Americans could see federal legalization very shortly.