On October 6, 2022, President Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign promise to provide relief to those stigmatized by low-level cannabis convictions by announcing that he would issue pardons for all who have been convicted of federal offenses of simple cannabis possession. In the statement announcing the pardons, President Biden also urged all State governors to issue pardons of state possession offenses and announced that the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and the Attorney General will be initiating an administrative process to review cannabis’ classification as a Schedule I Controlled Substance. President Biden’s actions represent a major step toward federal decriminalization (de-scheduling or re-scheduling)and possibly Federal legalization of cannabis.
The pardons are effective immediately, but it will take some time for individuals who have been pardoned to take full advantage of the benefits that they provide. The Department of Justice is currently formalizing a process by which said individuals can obtain a certificate of pardon to allow them to prove they have been pardoned. Once the process has been formalized, pardoned individuals will be able to submit a short application form to the Department of Justice to obtain their certificate. The Department of Justice estimates that over 6,500 people have been charged with simple possession. No person is currently imprisoned solely for cannabis possession in the federal system (although there are many who have been charged with simple possession in connection other offenses) so the pardons will not result in any releases from prison.
While President Biden’s pardons will have a significant impact on the lives of those impacted by outdated federal cannabis policy, it is important to note that there are some restrictions. Most importantly, pardons were only issued to individuals who have been convicted of simple possession; persons convicted of higher-level cannabis-related crimes (such as trafficking, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute) will not be pardoned. Additionally, pardons were not granted to persons who were convicted of possession of cannabis and another drug (such as cocaine) in a single offense. President Biden’s pardons also do not apply to undocumented immigrants, or others who were not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offense. The pardons likewise do not apply to state-level offenses, as the President does not have pardon power for persons charged or convicted of state crimes. Finally, the pardons are only granted to those charged with simple cannabis possession before October 6, 2022; any persons charged after October 6, 2022 will not be pardoned (as part of this announcement).
While President Biden’s pardons are laudable and a step in the right direction, further action is most certainly necessary to ensure that no person is imprisoned or stigmatized with a federal criminal conviction for cannabis possession in the future. That said, President Biden’s directive to the HHS and DOJ to begin an administrative review of federal cannabis policies is a good start; one can only hope that it results in a real change to federal cannabis policy, so that another round of pardons is not required in upcoming years.