Experts and individuals claim that US President Joe Biden’s pardon of thousands of Americans convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law has had a tremendous impact, even though it impacts fewer people than similar state and municipal initiatives. Biden has called on governors to provide comparable pardons for state marijuana convictions.
Biden’s pardons announced Oct. 6 affect about 6,500 people convicted of cannabis possession at the federal level. None remain in prison. Without a felony on their record, they won’t be tripped up when applying for a job or trying to rent an apartment. Research by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown Black Americans are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Biden’s pardon does not affect some 3,000 people convicted of higher level marijuana crimes who remain in federal prisons, and as many as 30,000 who are still in prison in several states, according to the advocacy group the Last Prisoner Project. Those numbers do not reflect people with convictions for marijuana possession at the state level, although approximately 2 million marijuana convictions have been expunged or pardoned by states where the drug is now legal.
Biden has called on governors to give similar pardons in their states, where most possession cases are prosecuted.
Kevin Sabet, an opponent of marijuana legalization who runs the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in an interview that he thinks Biden’s pardons could serve as a model for governors in conservative as well as a few liberal states who oppose decriminalizing pot but agree that users should not go to prison.
Marijuana is now fully legal in 19 U.S. states and allowed for medical use in 37. Most states that have legalized marijuana have also moved to expunge the records of nonviolent offenders or issue pardons.
But thousands of people continue to be arrested for marijuana offenses annually. Data is hard to come by, but NORML estimates that about 350,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2020, of which roughly 91% were for possession offenses only. According to the ACLU, of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for just possessing marijuana.