WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he is pardoning people with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana, a historic move that could help more than 6,500 people and sends a powerful message on how such actions should be treated.
The vast majority of convictions occur at the state level. The president is urging governors to likewise pardon those offenders.
"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Biden said in a video announcement. "It’s time that we right these wrongs."
Biden is also asking the departments of Justice, and Health and Human Services to review how marijuana should be scheduled under federal law.
White House officials said the president is making the move to fulfill a campaign promise as efforts in Congress to address the issue have stalled.
"As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," Biden said. "Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit."
Biden said the "collateral consequences" of convictions for marijuana possession include being denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities.
He also said Black and brown people have been arrested and convicted at disproportionate rates despite using marijuana at similar rates as white people.
The Justice Department will issue certificates of pardons to those eligible. That process will begin implementation "in coming days," according to department spokesman Anthony Coley.
The pardons will apply to those convicted under the District of Columbia’s drug laws, which covers “thousands” more people, according to the White House.
They do not apply to anyone who, at the time of their offense, was not in the country legally.
The president's pardon also blocks future federal prosecutions for simple possession.
Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. The classification is for drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin and LSD, while fentanyl and methamphetamine are Schedule 2 substances.
Over the years, Congress has enacted dozens of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for all drug-related offenses that led to longer incarceration periods. Repeat offenders were subjected to compulsory sentence enhancements such as doubling up penalties, which vary by substance. Some have even faced mandatory life imprisonment without parole if convicted of a third serious offense, per various reports by the United States Sentencing Commission.
The Justice Department will work with the Department of Health and Human Services on a "scientific review" of marijuana's classification, Coley said. There is no deadline for that review.
Biden emphasized that he does not want to change the rules on trafficking, marketing or underage sales of marijuana.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.” He also backed legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, deferring to states on recreational use and rescheduling marijuana as a Schedule II drug.
More than 540,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2019 — primarily for state offenses, according to the FBI.
In April, the House voted largely along party lines to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The Senate has not considered the legislation.
Medical use of cannabis products is allowed in 37 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It can be used recreationally in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
Biden’s move comes weeks before the midterm elections and could help motivate younger voters and minorities to go to the polls.
The latest NPR/Marist poll released this month found young and Black voters are among the least likely to vote this fall.
But Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of the youth advocacy group NextGen America, said Biden has “delivered huge victories for young people in recent months,” pointing to his action on the marijuana pardons, cancelling student loan debt and signing legislation to address climate change.
“One thing is clear: this is the youth agenda in action,” she said in a statement Thursday.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson called Biden’s pardons are “another significant step in addressing the systemic racism within the criminal justice system.”
“Vote, vote, vote,” Johnson said in a statement. “We can continue to make a difference.”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden pardons federal convictions for marijuana possession