WASHINGTON — In a seismic shift Thursday that upends decades of policy that facilitated the nation's "war on drugs," President Joe Biden pardoned everyone with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana.
The president also set the stage to potentially remove marijuana as a Schedule 1 classification under federal law, a designation given to the most dangerous substances. Rescheduling the drug could reduce – or eliminate altogether – penalties for marijuana possession.
The moves are a dramatic escalation toward the national discrimination of marijuana as the president targets low-level drug convictions that have disproportionately affected people of color.
What does it mean to be pardoned?
Pardons: Biden announced a pardon of "all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana." The pardons clear about 6,500 people who were convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law between 1992 and 2021. Pardons don't apply to individuals who were non-citizens not lawfully present in the U.S. at the time of their offense. The Justice Department said it will implement a process to provide certificates of pardon in the coming days.
A call to all states: The president urged all governors to take the same action with state marijuana offenses, which account for the vast majority of pot convictions. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized the recreational use of marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 37 states have legalized marijuana for medical use.
Schedule 1 examined: Biden asked Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to "expeditiously" review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. As a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana is currently in the same classification as heroin and LSD, Biden said, "and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic."
A historic move
Biden's actions are, quite simply, massive.
It's the most significant steps a U.S. president has taken to loosen federal marijuana laws, following the footsteps of increasingly more states that have moved to decriminalize marijuana in recent years.
Since 1965, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related violations, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for pot possessions, according to the ACLU.
Marijuana remains fully illegal in several states – including Idaho, South Carolina, Kansas, and Idaho and Nebraska – while only CBD oil is allowed in others: Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Indiana.
Criminal records for marijuana possession produce barriers for individuals to obtain employment, housing and educational. Some states ban people with prior drug convictions from participating in federal food stamp and welfare programs.
Many are asking how this will impact voting rights of previously convicted felons.
Who isn't being pardoned?
So, who isn't benefiting from the president's action?
People convicted of simple possession of marijuana at the state level
People who were not in the U.S. legally at the time of their offense.
People with federal convictions for other marijuana-related crimes like trafficking
Exact numbers in those three categories are not immediately available. But the state-prosecuted offenders represent "the vast majority" of folks who have been convicted of simple possession which is why the president is urging governors to follow his action.
The midterm calculation
The political backdrop with Biden's announcement can't be ignored either, and there was almost certainly an election calculus.
In the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden vowed as president he would decriminalize marijuana and expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.
Biden's announcement comes a month before the midterm election. Momentum that Democrats captured over the summer has, according to several polls, started to subside as gas prices rise again.
The president's move could energize a wavering Democratic base, particularly among young, Black and Latino voters – voting blocs critical for Democrats to hold on to power in Congress.
Support for legalizing marijuana is at an all-time high of 68% nationally, according to Gallup, including 71% of independent voters.
Last month, Biden delivered another timely announcement politically when he used executive authority to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt.
What they are saying
Biden said his steps seek to end a "failed approach" to marijuana that has incarcerated people for conduct many states no longer prohibit. "Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Biden said in a statement. "It’s time that we right these wrongs."
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, applauded Biden for "correcting unequal treatment," pointing to the racial disparity in drug arrests. "Today marks another significant step in addressing the systemic racism within the criminal justice system," he said. "Vote, vote, vote. We can continue to make a difference.”
Some Democratic candidates quickly embraced the move. Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman said, "This is a BFD and a massive step towards justice. "
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed the president's actions as "the latest manifestation of Democrats’ unyielding commitment to justice." Pelosi endorsed exploring whether to reclassify marijuana , calling it a "necessary step" to not "repeat the grave mistake of mass incarceration."
Most Republicans did not immediately weigh in on Biden's announcement. Recent polling from the Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank and polling firm found 70% of Americans – including even 58% of Republicans – either support or somewhat support the legalization of marijuana for adults at least 21 years old.
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the president's actions "long overdue." Moving forward, he called on the Biden administration to work with Congress to recategorize cannabis. "Congress should be inspired by the Administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the President’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history," he said.
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does Biden's presidential pardon mean for Americans