President Joe Biden announced Thursday that his administration would take sweeping measures to pardon marijuana-related drug offenses and take steps to reevaluate the drug’s federal classification, a step that could weaken how the drug is criminalized.
The administration announced a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana — defined as carrying an illegal drug in a quantity to suggest personal use, not sale or distribution — and urged all governors to do the same for state-level offenses. Biden also asks the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Attorney General to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. (It is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, putting it on par with far deadlier substances, such as heroin.)
The initiatives were made through an executive order, which allows the president to make policy without congressional approval.
“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” the president tweeted upon issuing the order. “Today, I’m taking steps to end our failed approach.”
The rationale Biden provided for the move couched as a victory for financial and racial equity, a theme the administration has emphasized in its approach to policy. “There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result,” he tweeted.
The order marks a milestone for the country, which has never issued sweeping federal pardons for the drug before, and also Biden himself. The president has long struggled to accept marijuana legalization as sound policy, resisting calls from his party’s left flank to fold it into his campaign platform during the 2020 election. The rationale, his campaign insisted at the time, based on his own analysis of public health. Biden had long read the summaries of medical studies looking for assurances that legalization would not lead to serious health issues, according to reporting from The Atlantic at the time.
The sweeping federal pardon is also a form of political redemption for Biden. The Senate veteran had built his congressional career pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing and other changes to drug laws. Biden was the architect of a 1989 drug bill that included mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, as well as the 1994 crime bill that escalated the war on drugs. Biden backed away from his tough-on-crime past during his 2020 presidential run, specifically calling the 1986 bill “a mistake” during a town hall event in October of that year.
Biden’s decision earned quick praise from John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania who has made marijuana legalization a central tenet of his campaign. Fetterman had spoken with Biden on the need to decriminalize the drug during a campaign stop with the president in Pittsburgh last month. “This is a BFD and a massive step towards justice,” Fetterman said in a statement.