Overview:

US President Joe Biden's federal pardon for simple possession of marijuana, currently a Schedule I drug, is a first step to long overdue criminal reform. But is it enough? And will states with high incarceration rates follow suit?

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On October 6, US President Joe Biden announced a pardon for all current citizens and lawful residents of the US convicted for the simple possession of marijuana. This pardon restores “full political, civil, and other rights” to some 6,500 individuals convicted between 1992 and 2021 under federal or District of Columbia law. It does not cover anyone who was not a legal citizen or resident at the time of arrest, and it does not extend to other offences, such as selling or distributing marijuana, or simple possession of other scheduled drugs. The pardon also does not extend to individuals charged or convicted under state laws.

For now, marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule I drug, which is defined as having “no currently accepted medical use”. But with 37 states, three territories, and DC having already legalized marijuana for medical use, this pardon is a long overdue effort to better align federal and state policy. Biden has also asked the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to review marijuana’s current classification.

Federal drug cases usually focus more on selling and distribution, and officials say that no one is currently in federal prison solely for simple possession. The value of today’s pardon therefore lies more immediately in how it will improve employment, education, housing, and federal aid opportunities for people who have already completed their sentences, but are unable to reintegrate fully with society on account of this criminal record.

Federal marijuana possession is a Class A misdemeanor on a first offence, with up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, and escalates to a misdemeanor with mandatory prison time on second and third offences. On that third offence, it can also become a felony, which drastically changes the convicted person’s long term civic life.

In many states, the situation for those convicted for simple possession is even more severe. National impact data is still being aggregated in the wake of Biden’s announcement, but The Texas Tribune has already reported that its state filed more than 14,000 misdemeanor possession cases this year up until August, with some 5,000 yielding convictions.

Biden’s federal pardon thus also came with a direct ask for state governors to issue similar pardons in response to local charges. Five state ballots in the upcoming midterms include measures for legalizing marijuana, but unlike Arkansas, Maryland, North Dakota, and South Dakota, Missouri could be the first state to follow up on Biden’s initiative. Its ballot already calls for the expungement of criminal history records for all personal use marijuana offences.

91 percent of US citizens support legalizing marijuana in some capacity, according to 2021 Pew polling. Unsurprisingly then, Biden’s first major steps on drug law reform did not go far enough for many. Advocacy groups like NORML and political candidates on the campaign trail have called for marijuana to be de-scheduled entirely, so that it may be regulated more like alcohol and cease to provide a staging ground for the extreme and sometimes lifelong criminalization of US citizens.

Civil rights advocate Reverend Al Sharpton likewise praised Biden for these initial efforts, while also issuing a statement through his National Action Network that calls on the country to confront “the outdated policies that equated thousands of young Black men with hardened drug pushers”. This language offers a strong reminder that the selling and distribution of marijuana are still treated under the US criminal code in a demographically skewed and ruinous way. As much as this White House announcement is a step in the right direction for reform, a great deal of work remains to develop better state and federal approaches to drug law and its outcomes.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.