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Biden Pardons Marijuana Possession, Orders Criminal Review (3)

Oct. 6, 2022, 8:11 PM

President Joe Biden took his first major steps toward decriminalizing marijuana, pardoning thousands of Americans convicted for possession of the drug and ordering a review of its legal status.

Biden on Thursday issued a blanket pardon for all prior federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana. He will also urge governors to issue similar pardons for state offenses involving marijuana, senior administration officials said.

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement, noting that people of color have been disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and convicted for the crime.

Cannabis Businesses

The initiative to pardon prisoners and review law enforcement is a significant step to address past arrests for an offense that is now legal in many US states. If the review Biden orders results in marijuana’s removal from the list of the most dangerous drugs, it would also impact cannabis businesses, which then would be allowed to bank, list on US stock exchanges, borrow money and do away with onerous tax burdens.

Marijuana stocks have risen and fallen over the past few years on prospects for federal legalization, and the AdvisorShares Pure US Cannabis exchange-traded fund surged 37% on Biden’s tweets Thursday.

QuickTake: How Legal Weed Has Changed the US for Better, Worse

Biden’s call for the attorney general to “initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law” is good news for the sector, but there’s no indication of how long such a review could last. Even states that legalized more than a decade ago, such as California and Colorado, are still struggling to get regulations right, especially regarding issues like black-market competition, high-potency THC products and preventing young people from accessing the drug.

Biden’s statement and the potential duration of the review raise questions about what will happen to legislative initiatives in the interim. The SAFE Banking Act, which would help cannabis companies bank, has been seen as having strong potential to pass Congress, regardless of any broader legalization for the drug.

Campaign Promise

The moves fulfill a Biden campaign pledge about a month ahead of midterm congressional elections, which may attract more young people and voters of color Democrats need to show up at the polls. Democratic candidates including Pennsylvania Senate hopeful John Fetterman have pressured the president to decriminalize pot.

The pardons could affect more than 6,500 people charged with simple marijuana possession under federal laws and thousands more under the DC Code, White House officials said. However, no one is in federal prison solely for simple possession of marijuana, according to the officials.

Fetterman praised Biden’s move in a tweet, but the president’s announcements stop short of decriminalizing marijuana, which would require an act of Congress. Lawmakers have not taken action on the matter but the issue has gained support among members of both parties. Nonetheless, they mark some of the most sweeping steps taken by a president to reduce criminal offenses related to the drug.

The president is asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning the federal government sees it as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

That puts weed in the same category as heroin and LSD -- as Biden noted, a higher classification than fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that the CDC says was responsible for more than 71,000 overdose deaths in 2021.

Senior administration officials said there is no timeline to complete the review, but Biden wants it done expeditiously.

States and localities have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, even as it has remained illegal at the federal level, creating a patchwork legal system for the industry.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had pushed Biden to change how marijuana is classified and pardon non-violent marijuana related offenses.

In a July letter to the president, Warren and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, joined by others, castigated the administration for not moving quickly on the issue. They said the Department of Justice had authority under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to begin the process of removing cannabis’s classification as a Schedule I drug independently of an HHS determination.

“The administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes,” they wrote.

(Updates throughout with new details)

To contact the reporters on this story:
Jordan Fabian in Washington at jfabian6@bloomberg.net;
Tiffany Kary in New York at tkary@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net

Meghashyam Mali

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.