WASHINGTON  — President Biden on Thursday pardoned all individuals convicted on federal charges of simple marijuana possession, a move that the White House estimated would affect more than 6,500 people nationwide and thousands more in the District of Columbia.

Biden urged all governors to follow his example and called for a formal review of marijuana’s classification in federal law as a Schedule I drug. Currently, marijuana has the same classification as heroin and LSD, and a higher classification than fentanyl.

A change to the legal classification of marijuana, although not certain, would be an extremely significant reform, clearing the way for major changes to the federal government’s approach to the drug.

Reclassifying marijuana would be “a big step in the right direction,” said Tianna Mays, a civil rights attorney in Washington. “It would take this down from being a felony, the same as possessing heroin. So we’re hopeful about the steps the Biden administration is taking.”

The actions, which many Democratic activists have been calling for, are the most significant steps Biden has taken to date toward reforming America’s drug laws. They are also a clear effort to boost turnout in next month’s midterm election, which will decide whether the president’s party can hold on to control of Congress. Black and Latino groups, whose communities are disproportionately affected by the enforcement of drug laws, have been especially outspoken in calling for marijuana decriminalization.

Asked about the timing of the announcement, which comes 32 days ahead of the election, an administration official who briefed reporters on the plan said that Biden was looking to fulfill a campaign promise after Congress failed to take any action.


“As I said when I ran for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a series of tweets laying out the plan.

“It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities,” Biden continued. “And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

Josh Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster focused on Latinos, had viewed Biden’s inaction on marijuana as a missed opportunity to solidify his standing with Latino voters. “This is another step showing this president not only gets it done but evolves,” he said. “I think it not only delivers justice but will help deliver vulnerable Democratic seats in November.”

Biden did not announce the marijuana reforms in person. Instead, the White House released the news while Biden was in upstate New York touting IBM’s investment in a plant that will make semiconductors.

Eric Altieri, the executive director of NORML, an organization that backs full marijuana legalization, said in a statement that Biden’s actions were “long overdue” and urged the president to continue working with Congress to further loosen the nation’s marijuana laws.

“Since 1965, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related violations – for activities that the majority of voters no longer believe ought to be a crime,” Altieri said.

The Democrats who have been the most outspoken about the issue were quick to applaud Biden. Chuck Rocha, a campaign consultant who advises candidates on Latino outreach, said that Biden “has done more in (two) years than I can ever remember the president doing.” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the party’s nominee for Senate, tweeted a time-worn campaign meme: “We did it, Joe.”

The politics of marijuana and criminal justice reform are anything but black and white. It was President Donald Trump who enacted the First Step Act to reduce federal prison sentences, a law supported by a majority of GOP lawmakers. Ironically, that law rolled back much of the 1994 crime bill – co-sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden – that stiffened drug sentences and directed millions in federal dollars to local police departments, resulting in a major uptick in the nation’s incarceration rate.

Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed.

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