President Joe Biden will pardon all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana and directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Attorney General to review "expeditiously" how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
"I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., do hereby grant a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to ... all current United States citizens and lawful permanent residents who committed the offense of simple possession of marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act," Biden wrote in a proclamation granting clemency.
The action fulfills a campaign promise for Biden, who pledged as a candidate that he would "decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions."
"As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," Biden wrote in a statement. "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."
The president announced in a statement Thursday that he is taking three steps to "end this failed approach" to cannabis.
As part of his clemency plan, President Biden has "directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals."
"There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result," he wrote. "My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions."
A senior administration official estimated that more than "6,500 people with prior federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana and thousands of such convictions under D.C. law could benefit from this relief."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice Department said that the agency "will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offense."
"In coming days, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will begin implementing a process to provide impacted individuals with certificates of pardon," the statement continues.
Biden is also calling on governors to do the same with state offenses.
"Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either," Biden said.
Biden also directed Attorney General Merrick Garland and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to conduct a review of how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, along with drugs like heroin and LSD.
Biden said that such a classification is reserved for "the most dangerous substances," noting that marijuana is listed "even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic."
The president noted that "even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place."
In a statement, the Justice Department said it would work with HHS "as they launch a scientific review of how marijuana is scheduled under federal law."
"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Biden concluded. "It’s time that we right these wrongs."
Biden's move was cheered by advocates who have long sought to push the president to change the federal approach to cannabis.
"We did it, Joe," Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a staunch marijuana advocate who is running for U.S. Senate, posted to Twitter. (Fetterman echoed a phrase said in a widely viewed video by then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris from Nov. 2020 after the election was called for Biden.)
Fetterman, who held a statewide listening tour on legalizing cannabis as the state's No. 2 executive, said that he "spoke with [Biden] last month about decriminalizing marijuana."
"Because no one should be turned down for a job or housing or volunteering at their kid’s school because of some old nonviolent weed charge," Fetterman wrote. "This is a BFD [referring to Biden's hot mic moment at the Obamacare signing ceremony in 2010 as vice president] and a massive step towards justice. Thank you, Mr. President."
"Federal pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession brings us one step closer to restoring justice and humanity for people convicted of something so trivial," New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman wrote on Twitter. "Next we need to deschedule marijuana and make the marijuana industry more accessible!
Bowman's fellow New York Democrat Rep. Mondaire Jones wrote simply: "Joe Biden is the best President in modern American history."
"This is a monumental decision by the Biden administration that will impact thousands of lives in New York and across the US," wrote New York State Attorney General Letitia James. "I applaud @POTUS for this major step forward for our country."
Republicans were largely silent on the subject, with some, like South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, cheering the administration's decision.
"Applaud the Administration for their necessary big step forward in bringing justice to so many," Mace wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
GOP criticism on the decision largely came in the form of attempts to paint the Biden administration and Democrats as soft on crime.
"Once again, Biden's response to record overdose deaths and murders is to be softer towards crime," Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton wrote in a Twitter post.
A spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's office issued a similar statement, writing that the state "is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals."
"The Governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon," the spokesperson added.