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President Biden announced a step forward in marijuana reform, paving the way for the drug to be possibly removed as a schedule I controlled substance. While the president’s proclamation only applies to offenses at the federal level, it could have a significant impact on thousands of people.  

“While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” said Biden. ”

Specifically, the president ordered “a full and unconditional pardon” for all U.S. citizens and permanent residents previously convicted of simple possession of marijuana at the federal level. Even a minor drug conviction can prevent people from jobs, housing and other federal benefits.  

A little more than 30 days before the midterm, and with early voting beginning in key states soon, Biden delivered on a key campaign promise to address the legacy and harm of criminalizing people for using or simply possessing marijuana.

“The Justice Department will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense,” Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley. “In the coming days, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will begin implementing a process to provide impacted individuals with certificates of pardon.”

State governors could follow suit. 

Recognizing most of the convictions, Biden encourages governors to take the same action regarding state-level offenses. To date, 27 states and the District of Columbia have taken varying steps to decriminalize marijuana. Federal legislation like the MORE Act stalled in the Senate but could see a renewed push if Democrats expand their control in the chamber. 

While marijuana arrests have steadily declined at the federal level, disparities persist. Despite the increase in decriminalization and legalization efforts, the arrest rate of Black people continues to outpace that of their white counterparts. 

As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund highlighted on Twitter, Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis despite using at a slightly lower rate than their white counterparts.

Biden calls for a review of schedule I status. 

As part of the announcement, Biden requested the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to review how marijuana is classified under federal law. He noted that it should be down “expeditiously,” given the drug’s current classification alongside some of the most dangerous substances driving the overdose epidemic. 

“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,” Biden said. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.” 


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