President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he planned to pardon simple marijuana possession and urged local governors to do the same.
Biden requested the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General begin a review of marijuana’s classification as a “Schedule 1” drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said in a statement on marijuana reform. “Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
UC Berkeley professor of criminal justice law Jonathan Simon said Biden’s pardon has limitations, noting that the federal government is only a small part of the incarceration system. Simon also added that drug trafficking and transporting crimes are not included in Biden’s pardon.
Simon praised Biden’s pardon for being an automatic process — one that individuals won’t have to apply for. He also noted the reclassification of marijuana that Biden called for in his statement is unlikely and may ultimately require congressional action.
“It will further calm the waters and reintegrate people who have been documented entries in the long indentures of the state in marijuana and marijuana policy,” said campus law professor Franklin Zimring.
Zimring said the pardon will have an overall beneficial impact on the state, but the effects will be modest as this policy change is just a sign of the nation catching up with California. According to Zimring, for California, marijuana policy is older news and “last year’s issues.”
Simon said Biden may have chosen to pardon simple marijuana possession to improve his popularity with younger voters by showing a commitment to criminal justice reform without worrying about major backlash before a midterm election. He also said this may be an indicator that legalization of marijuana will be considered by the next Congress.
The pardon will not release anyone from prison and will only help those who have already served sentences, according to Simon. Simon added that the pardon won’t heavily influence the conviction rates of Black and brown people for marijuana possession, as local prosecutors on the state level are often racially discriminatory in regards these charges and convictions.
“This doesn’t get at the primary victims of the War on Drugs,” Simon said. “People who are serving very long sentences or have served very long sentences are still suffering from the criminal record problem.”