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US pardons people convicted for marijuana possession under federal law

US president Joe Biden announced a pardon for thousands of people convicted for possession of marijuana under federal law

Society 6 October 2022

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A rally to legalise marijuana in the United States

Shutterstock / Susan Montgomery

On 6 October, US president Joe Biden announced plans to reform US marijuana policy, including issuing a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession – and calling on state governors to do the same.

“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,” said Biden in a statement released by the White House. His pardon applies to thousands of people charged with marijuana possession under federal law.

He also called upon the US attorney general Merrick Garland and US secretary of health and human services Xavier Becerra to evaluate how marijuana is classified under US federal law. Under current laws it is in the category reserved for the most dangerous substances.

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The use of medical marijuana is currently legal in 37 US states and Washington, DC, and 19 states allow adults to purchase cannabis for recreational use. Yet despite this, many people remain incarcerated for simple possession of cannabis.

Even after release, criminal records for marijuana possession impose “needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” said Biden in the statement. He also noted that despite similar marijuana consumption among different races and ethnic groups, “Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates”.

Indeed, several studies support this observation. Data from 2018, for instance, shows that more than 53 per cent of white people over age 18 in the US report using cannabis at some point in their lives compared to 45 per cent of Black people. Yet Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

In June, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement calling on states to expunge criminal marijuana charges from people’s records when the related offenses were later legalised.

“It simply isn’t fair to ruin a life based on actions that result in convictions but are subsequently legalised or decriminalized,” said AMA spokesperson Scott Ferguson at the time.

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