US President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession on Thursday, taking a major step toward decriminalising the drug and fulfilling a promise he made to his supporters a month before the midterm elections.
“I am announcing a pardon for all prior federal offences of simple marijuana possession,” Biden said.
In addition to the pardons, Biden directed the justice and health departments to investigate whether cannabis should be reclassified as a less dangerous substance.
According to officials, approximately 6,500 people are directly affected by convictions under federal marijuana statutes. Clemency will be granted to thousands more people convicted under federal laws in Washington, D.C.
However, Biden’s gesture aims to push the shift even further, putting pressure on state governments around the country to follow suit.
“I am urging all governors to follow suit when it comes to state offences. No one should be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, and no one should be in a local jail or state prison for the same reason “Biden stated.
- Political ramifications – The White House announced the move abruptly via video message and written statement, with no prior build-up.
However, the impact is expected to be significant, both legally and politically, allowing Biden to seize the narrative on a trend toward decriminalisation that has already been embraced by large swaths of the country.
Ahead of the November 8 midterm elections, in which his Democrats are fighting for even a sliver of control of Congress, Biden has now met a key demand from racial justice activists outraged by the way cannabis law enforcement frequently targets ethnic minorities.
“Sending people to prison for having marijuana in their possession has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said.
He noted that non-white people are disproportionately affected by marijuana possession convictions, which, in addition to sometimes resulting in jail time, can result in years of legal repercussions, making it difficult to get work and an education.
The third announced measure was a directive to federal health and justice officials to “review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”
Currently, federal law classifies marijuana alongside far more dangerous narcotics such as heroin and LSD. It ranks higher than the relatively new – and highly addictive – drugs fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a key Biden ally fighting to keep the chamber under Democratic control in November, said the president’s decision recognised that the so-called “war on drugs” has been “a war on people, particularly people of colour.”
“We applaud President Biden,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, a leading Black civil rights organisation, on Twitter.
“For decades, the NAACP has prioritised addressing unequal treatment, including marijuana reform.”
The powerful American Civil Liberties Union’s Cynthia Roseberry echoed the praise, saying Biden was helping to lift the “long shadow” cast by draconian drug laws, while the Marijuana Policy Project, which campaigns for legal reform, called Biden’s decision “historic.”
Republican Senator Tom Cotton, on the other hand, accused Biden of softening his stance on crime in order to distract.
“In the midst of a crime wave and on the verge of a recession, Joe Biden is pardoning drug offenders, many of whom pled guilty to more serious charges. This is a desperate attempt to divert attention away from failed leadership “Cotton stated this on Twitter.