President Joe Biden announced a mass pardon for people in and out of prison with “simple possession” marijuana charges, a major step towards national decriminalisation of cannabis, which is legal for recreational or medical use in most states but still illegal at the federal level.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Thursday.
“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” he added. “And 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.”
The president said he tasked the attorney general with creating a process to effectuate the pardons, and is asking the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to review marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I status means the government considers cannabis has no accepted medical use and presents a high risk of abuse.
The classification influences how marijuana is treated under federal criminal law more generally, and also puts up substantial barriers to those researching cannabis’s medical uses.
It’s unclear when the pardons would take effect, and the majority of the marijuana prisoners in the US are incarcerated at the state level.
In his proposal accompanying the pardon announcement, Mr Biden also called on state governors to adopt similar steps.
Democratic voters, criminal justice advocates, and members of Mr Biden’s own party have been pushing the White House to take bigger steps on marijuana reform.
This is a developing story and will be updated with new information.