Yesterday, in a somewhat surprising announcement yesterday, Joe Biden, president of the United States of America, pledged that the government will pardon thousands of Americans that have been convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law. He also announced several other moves towards the federal decriminalisation of cannabis, asking both the Department of Health and the Department of Justice to review how the plant is scheduled under federal law as well as encouraging state governors to take similar measures with those convicted of possession.
In his statement, Joe Biden said that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates. Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach.”
The three steps he announced are summarised below:
- A pardon of all prior Federal offences of simple possession of marijuana.
- Urge all Governors to do the same with regard to state offences
- Ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
The measures announced will serve to clear the convictions of all those found guilty of simple marijuana possession since it was outlawed in the early 1970s. According to official statistics, only around 6,500 people were convicted of this charge between 1992 and 2021, but to that number, we can add all those convicted under District of Columbia drug laws in Washington D.C., which is thought to be in the thousands. However, the vast majority of cannabis possession offences in the USA are prosecuted at a state level, which is why the Biden administration will press state governors and legislators to follow this bold step and move to pardon hundreds of thousands of cannabis offenders across the entire country.
The pardons will only apply to those convicted of simple possession, in other words, those found guilty of carrying quantities of cannabis deemed appropriate for personal consumption. The measures do not apply to anyone convicted of possession with intent to supply or distribute marijuana. Additionally, the move will not see any prisoners being released, as there are currently no inmates serving federal prison time for simple possession alone. Biden also said that, while changes to federal and state regulations regarding cannabis take place, important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales will remain.
Despite only affecting the convictions of a small percentage of the USA’s cannabis convicts and ex-cons – over 99% of federal drug offenders are convicted of trafficking – this announcement represents a huge change in the federal government’s view of cannabis and could potentially pave the way for decriminalisation at a federal level. Given the key role played by the USA in the global criminalisation of cannabis and its great influence on the drug policies of many other foreign nations, the relaxing of federal attitudes could represent a sea change in cannabis laws on a worldwide level.
Of course, there are many social media commentators who think that this announcement is a brazen attempt to garner electoral support for the Democrat Party in the upcoming midterm elections. Indeed, Biden pledged to decriminalise cannabis as part of his 2020 presidential election campaign, which was itself an important shift in position for the former vice-president who had always opposed legalisation and who created the Office of National Drug Policy, a body which established mandatory minimum sentences for weed offenders. Some have pointed out that, with a simple executive order, Biden could federally decriminalise marijuana at the stroke of a pen, and that the changes announced amount to nothing more than whitewashing and are absent of any real implications for the POWs of America’s unjust war on drugs.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.” President Biden, 6/10/22
Under US federal law, cannabis is currently a schedule 1 drug, in the same bracket as heroin, LSD, MDMA and peyote, all considered as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” To get an idea of how surreal this classification is, we need only look at Fentanyl, a drug reported to have caused 56,516 overdose deaths in 2020 alone, is only a schedule 2 drug, alongside other lethal synthetic opioids, cocaine as well as several drugs commonly administered to hyperactive children, such as Ritalin and Adderall. The rescheduling of marijuana to a lower category, if it goes ahead, would have many positive implications, not least of which would be the easing of restrictions on scientific studies. This would allow a new wave of research into the possibilities offered by the cannabis plant and potentially open the door to discovering many new therapeutic applications.
Alongside the rest of the cannabis world, here at Alchimia, we will await further developments with bated breath and also, after this latest surprise development, with a new feeling of optimism.
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