Biden pardons thousands for ‘simple possession’ of marijuana, hints at future reclassification

Joe Biden
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, to travel to Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Updated 4:21 p.m.

President Joe Biden is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana, as his administration takes a dramatic step toward decriminalizing the drug and addressing charging practices that disproportionately impact people of color.

He is also calling on governors to issue similar pardons for those convicted of state marijuana offenses, which reflect the vast majority of marijuana possession cases.

Biden, in a statement, said the move reflects his position that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.”

“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 said. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”

Biden is also directing the secretary of Health and Human Services and the U.S. attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

The House passed the MORE Act earlier this year, which would decriminalize the manufacturing, distribution or possession of marijuana. The Senate released its version of a marijuana decriminalization bill this past summer. But that has yet to pass.

A senior administration official said Biden was taking the step because of the House bill, saying Congress has “been working on this issue with one significant bill passing the house, (but that) has stalled and we are almost at the end of this Congress.”

Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter welcomed Biden's presidential pardons, noting Gov. Jared Polis has already started this work for state-level offenses. But he also said steps taken by the White House Friday do not go far enough in helping Colorado cannabis businesses access traditional banks and financial institutions.

“Even if marijuana is moved to a lower schedule on the Controlled Substances Act, we will continue to face banking conflicts between federal and state law,” Perlmutter said. 

A bill from Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the SAFE Banking Act, would make it easier for legal cannabis companies to access financial services. But that has stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers have struggled to find some common ground on the issue of marijuana decimalization, which would be necessary for cannabis companies to use traditional banks.

He urged the Senate to pass his bill. Key senators have been negotiating what’s been referred to as SAFE plus, which could include some social justice provisions, in addition to the banking provisions.

Zeke Miller reporting for the Associated Press contributed to this story.