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“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana”: What Biden’s Announcement on Cannabis Reform Means for Consumers, Advocates, Public Health and Legalization Moving Forward


October 7, 2022

President Biden announced a massive shift in American policy related to cannabis by issuing mass pardons and ordering the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review how cannabis is scheduled under federal law in the Controlled Substances Act. He took to Twitter to explain his position and the steps he is taking as president to undo that harms of cannabis prohibition and rewrite American cannabis policy moving forward (see the official statement and the proclamation on granting mass pardons on The White House website).

Here is a summary of the three steps in President Biden’s announcement:

  • First, President Biden is “pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My pardon will remove this burden.”
  • Second, President Biden is “calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses. 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.”
  • Third, President Biden is directing HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and US Attorney General Merrick Garland to start the process to review how cannabis (marijuana) is scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). President Biden acknowledged that “We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense.”

This is the first time that a sitting President has ever taken significant action to address cannabis policy reform. President Biden also cited the racial disparities in cannabis arrest rates and the social determinants of health of a legal record from cannabis use that have contributed to health inequities across the country.

President Biden’s steps on cannabis reform are unlikely to have a significant or immediate impact on mass incarceration, as there are approximately 149 people currently incarcerated in federal prison for simple cannabis possession according to the United States Sentencing Commission. It is important to note that this does not pardon the growing or selling of cannabis even if the charges were non-violent and does not prevent future federal arrests for the possession or use of cannabis. Therefore, President Biden’s second step of calling on state governors to pardon state-level charges is critically important as most cannabis arrests happen at the state and local level.

As for legalization efforts, this signals to moderate democrats and republicans that passing legislation relating to the legalization and regulation of cannabis is gaining momentum. The move by Biden to include the Department of Health and Human Services in the cannabis policy review should ease the concerns of moderate senators who frequently cite public health concerns as their reason for opposing such a policy change. This is important for cannabis advocates and consumers as the US Senate has served as the main barrier to passing both cannabis legalization and cannabis banking bills.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has recently wrapped up a month-long window for people to apply for a streamlined pardon. If you or someone you know were not able to apply for this state-level pardon or do not qualify for the federal pardon offered by President Biden, then you can apply for a free legal review from the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) who can help clear your record by filling out an intake form on this link.