WASHINGTON DC – The US president Joe Biden unexpectedly announced big news yesterday (6 October): he was pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.
Further, Biden called on state governments to do the same (many more people are charged under state law than federal law), and also said that his administration would review whether marijuana should still be classified as a Schedule I substance, which puts it in the same category as heroin and LSD.
There are some restrictions to the announcement. The White House said that, while the pardons will apply to lawful permanent residents, it would not apply to “non-citizens not lawfully present in the United States at the time of their offence”. And those convicted of selling or distributing marijuana will not be pardoned.
Still, it is significant. Not only for what it means for those convicted under federal law – for whom the conviction might have been a stumbling block in, say, finding a job or housing – but also because of what the consequences could be: pardons at the state level and perhaps, in time, the decriminalisation of marijuana. (Decriminalisation would need to happen via Congress, but switching the drug’s classification would change the penalties for marijuana possession).
That Biden made the announcement was, on the one hand, surprising. At 79, he comes from a generation that looks differently, and more harshly, on marijuana than, for example, millennials. On the other hand, this move comes one month before the midterm elections, so perhaps it isn’t so surprising. As with his student debt cancellation, Biden is practising electoral politics. While some Republicans, such as Senator Tom Cotton, came out to criticise Biden’s decision, the reality is that a majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legal for recreational use – more than 60 per cent according to the Pew Research Center.
It also demonstrates that Biden – who helped write the draconian 1994 crime legislation that escalated the “war on drugs”, encouraging more drug-related arrests and harsher federal prison sentences – is capable of fulfilling his campaign promises to right some of the wrongs he wrote into law. Enforcement of drug laws in the US is often carried out in an inequitable, discriminatory and, frankly, racist way. “While white and black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates,” Biden said in Thursday’s video announcement. This is to say: this isn’t just popular, it’s also a social justice issue. That combination – a policy that is popular and just – does not always overlap or intersect. In this case, it does.
Biden, in making this announcement, showed not only that he understands the times are changing and that he can change with them, but that, as president, he has a responsibility to encourage them to change further still.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.