WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday pardoned all people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and said his administration would review whether marijuana should still be a Schedule 1 drug like heroin and LSD, saying that “makes no sense.”
The pardons will clear about 6,500 people who were convicted on federal charges of simple possession of marijuana from 1992 to 2021 and thousands more who were convicted of possession in the District of Columbia, officials said ahead of the president’s announcement.
Mr. Biden urged governors to follow his lead for people convicted on state charges of simple possession. The number of convictions under state laws vastly outnumbers those who have been charged with a violation of federal laws, limiting the overall reach of the president’s actions on Thursday.
Still, the moves — which come about a month before the midterm elections — represent striking shifts for the federal government on a campaign promise that Mr. Biden made in 2020.
“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states,” Mr. Biden said on Twitter on Thursday. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right these wrongs.”
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Mr. Biden stopped short of calling for the complete decriminalization of marijuana — something that Congress would have to do — and said that the federal government still needs “important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and underage sales of marijuana.”
But the president’s executive actions move the federal government in the direction of the positions taken by some state governments, which have already reduced or eliminated the criminal punishments for simply possessing marijuana — punishments that for decades have sent people to jail.
Advocacy groups, including those representing minority groups, have been urging Mr. Biden to take action as a way of demonstrating his commitment to reforming the inequities built into the criminal justice system.
They praised the president’s announcement, but said the impact on real-life individuals will be limited if the states do not follow suit. And they said it means the federal government will still be pursuing criminal charges involving marijuana trafficking, which are more common.
Only 92 people were sentenced on federal marijuana possession charges in 2017, out of nearly 20,000 drug convictions, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Udi Ofer, a Princeton University professor and former deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said simple possession of marijuana is a crime “almost entirely prosecuted by the states.” The federal government tends to more commonly prosecute marijuana trafficking crimes, he said.
“This is an important political statement, it’s an important value statement, it’s progress but this is a drop in the ocean of injustice,” Mr. Ofer said.
Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, called the president’s move “a really good step” and said one of the most important parts of Mr. Biden’s policy is the directive to review how future marijuana crimes are prosecuted.
“That’s trying to change a policy decision that was made that marijuana is as dangerous as these other drugs, which we know is not true,” Ms. Chettiar said.
Administration officials said individuals convicted of possession under federal law will be able to apply for a pardon certificate from the Justice Department to use when they are trying to get a job, find housing or apply to college. The federal government will stop charging anyone with simple possession starting on Thursday.
Marijuana is already fully legal in about 20 states, and some other states have relaxed criminal penalties, according to DISA, a large drug-testing company that tracks state laws regarding marijuana. It remains fully illegal in a handful of states.