President Joe Biden on Thursday announced new executive actions aimed at decriminalizing the U.S. stance on marijuana, which is now legal for medical use in 37 states and available for recreational use in 19 states, the national capital and Guam.
In a recorded video message, Biden said he was announcing, via executive order, a pardon for all prior federal offenses of simple possession of the substance. That pardon could affect more than 6,500 Americans, White House officials told reporters. But they added that most marijuana convictions happen at the state level, leading to Biden’s second announcement, which called on governors to issue pardons for state marijuana possession offenses.
Biden also on Thursday directed a federal review of how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. It is currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I drug, defined as drugs with no medical use and a high potential for abuse, putting it at the same level as heroin and LSD.
“As I said when I ran for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities.
“And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
Senior administration officials told reporters the president still supports limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales.
“The president has been clear that our marijuana laws are not working,” a senior administration official told reporters. “Members of Congress have been working on this issue, but that effort is stalled. And we're almost at the end of the Congress. So, the president has been considering his options and he's now taking executive action to address the country's failed approach to marijuana.”
The executive director of NORML, a group that lobbies for legalizing marijuana for adults, said the administration’s actions are long overdue and the president should work with Congress to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
“Moving forward, the administration must work collaboratively with congressional leadership to repeal America’s failed marijuana criminalization laws,” Erik Altieri said in an emailed statement.
Biden's Republican opponents opposed the move, raising questions about whether Republican legislators and governors would heed Biden's call to pardon people for state marijuana possession offenses.
"In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders — many of whom pled down from more serious charges," tweeted Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. "This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership."
Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, an increasing number of Americans have supported decriminalizing the drug.
Last year, a Gallup public opinion survey indicated that more than two-thirds of Americans supported legalizing marijuana.
Still, Gallup also reported that Americans are evenly split in their views about marijuana's effect on society, with roughly equal numbers saying it is negative and positive.