Biden to pardon convictions for cannabis possession

President Biden has announced he is pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple cannabis possession and launching a review of how cannabis is scheduled under federal law.

The pardon will remove a burden from people who are denied access to employment, housing and educational opportunities as a result of their convictions, said Biden. 

Despite medical cannabis being legal in 19 States and recreational cannabis use being legal in 40 States, Cannabis is currently illegal at the federal level and is categorised in the same Schedule as drugs such as heroin. 

Read more: New report lays out cannabis social equity principles for UK

In an announcement on Thursday, the President confirmed he is asking the Attorney General to initiate the process of reviewing how cannabis is scheduled under federal law – saying it “makes no sense” that cannabis is classified as more serious than fentanyl.

Biden stated: “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives – for conduct that is legal in many States. That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today we begin to right these wrongs.”

Biden emphasised in his statement that as federal and state regulations change, important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales of cannabis will still be needed.

UK drug reform groups have welcomed the news, describing the development as an admission of the failure of prohibition and a huge step for global drug reform.

Read more: The economic advantages of amending cannabis legislation

Volteface head of operations, Katya Kowalski, commented: “Biden’s decision to pardon simple cannabis possession conviction is a huge step for global drug reform. It’s refreshing to see a global leader admit to the failure of prohibition.

“What we are witnessing is a significant moment for social justice, overturning and undoing decades of harmful prohibition. It’s also a recognition of the normalisation of cannabis as a drug and a medicine. We’ve seen the lead up to this already occur with states legalising adult-use and medical cannabis.

“Not only is this significant for the US, but a policy change which will undoubtedly shift global attitudes toward the reclassification and legalisation of cannabis.

“This is the beginning of the end of prohibition and we’re witnessing a moment in history as the war on drugs is slowly defeated.”

Executive director of UK drug reform group, Release, Niamh Eastwood, emphasised the benefits this will have for minority communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, but notes this progressive approach is not being taken in the UK.

Eastwood commented: “This is a momentous decision by President Biden. The United States, the original architects of the modern drug war, are now leading the way in dismantling prohibition, at least in respect of cannabis. 

“As Biden acknowledges in his announcement drug law enforcement has disproportionately affected people from racialised communities, a situation that is repeated in the UK, where Black people are nearly 12 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession compared to White people, despite being less likely to use the drug.

“However, whilst the US starts to take pragmatic, evidenced-based approaches to cannabis, much of which is grounded in racial and social justice principles, in the UK we are going backwards. 

“The new Home Secretary has just announced her intention to clamp down on cannabis users and three Conservative police and crime commissioners last week called for the drug to be made a Class A substance.

“It’s quite unbelievable to watch UK political leaders scrambling to look tough on drugs, whilst many parts of the world are moving towards decriminalisation and regulation.”

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