Biden asked state governors to do the same for state offenses, which make up the bulk of US marijuana possession offenses. He also added a request for the US attorney general and the secretary of health and human services to evaluate how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
These actions are a key step forward for the thousands of people, disproportionately from all communities, who have prior federal convictions for marijuana possession, and who face many barriers to employment, or educational opportunities as well as adverse impacts on their families as a result. In his statement, Biden acknowledged the United States’ “failed approach” to marijuana and said, “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.” This represents a reassessment of – and may herald a marked shift away from – decades of racist, prohibitionist US drug laws at the federal level.
The move will help more than 6,000 people who have been convicted of federal charges from 1992 to 2021, according to Biden administration officials and data from the US Sentencing Commission. (Notably none of these people are still in federal prison.) Those who lost their civic rights due to their felony conviction will be eligible for relief, including having those rights restored. A criminal record can be a barrier to employment, education, the right to vote, and certain public benefits, including public housing.
Despite Black people using marijuana at rates similar to white people, Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. An April 2020 ACLU report found that in 2018, Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, a disparity that had increased over past decade.
Biden’s presidential action reflects major changes in public opinion and US federal drug policy, and is consistent with decades-long research and advocacy by many groups pushing for rights respecting US drug policy.
The group advocates for justice rooted in principles of racial and reparative justice and reinvestment in individuals and communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the MJC.
While Biden’s marijuana pardon action is worth celebrating, the failure to include many noncitizens is a major policy failure. Immigrant communities are some of those most deeply impacted by marijuana criminalization in the US. Human Rights Watch studied the long-term impacts of minor drug convictions on immigrants, which can result in detention, deportation, family separation, ineligibility for asylum, and the inability to obtain legal status in the US.
Even so, Biden’s presidential action demonstrates that long-overdue progress is being made. Human Rights Watch will continue to stand alongside members of the MJC and others to advocate not just for marijuana reform but for drug policy reform more broadly. And this is a crucial step in the right direction.