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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced executive action on Thursday that would pardon thousands of people with previous federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.

Biden then called on governors to follow suit with state offenses for simple possession of marijuana, saying that “just as no one should be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for this. not right either.

The president also asked U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review the classification of marijuana under federal law as a Schedule I drug, the highest classification. dangerous from the Drug Enforcement Agency, including substances like heroin and LSD.

Biden’s executive order to pardon simple possession includes the District of Columbia as well as those convicted through the federal court system.

“Sending people to jail for possession of marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for behaviors that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement.

“A failed approach to marijuana”

The move aims to address the country’s “failure of approach to marijuana,” a senior administration official said Thursday afternoon, minutes before the announcement.

Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 19 states, including Virginia, but there is still a mix of drug-related laws. In 38 states, marijuana is legal for medical purposes. Several others consider marijuana illegal in all its forms.

Civil rights organizations and researchers have shown that marijuana possession charges disproportionately affect black and brown communities. For example, the ACLU found that blacks were 3.7 times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than whites.

Police made 663,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, according to FBI data, which accounted for 40% of all drug-related arrests that year.

A senior administration official said Thursday, “While white, black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people are disproportionately in jail for it.”

Senior administration officials said that while a person has not been charged or convicted of marijuana possession, as of Thursday, “pardon covers that conduct.”

The Department of Justice will create an administrative process for those pardoned to obtain a pardon certificate “so that they have documents they can show to law enforcement, employers and others as needed. “said a senior administration official.

States moved first

States began decriminalizing or legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012 when voters in Colorado and Washington passed statewide ballot measures. Over the next decade, 17 more states followed suit. These states have operated for years in conflict with federal laws that have kept the substance strictly illegal.

Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize marijuana in 2021, though state lawmakers have struggled to agree on the parameters of a retail market.

Marijuana will be legal in Virginia on July 1. Here’s what is and isn’t allowed under the new law.

The US House of Representatives passed legislation earlier this year to legalize marijuana nationwide, but the bill failed to gain traction in the Senate.

The House voted 220 to 204 to approve the measure, which would draw the line between federal law and the law in states where recreational marijuana is legal. Three Republicans joined all but two Democrats in endorsing the measure.

Democratic lawmakers reacted positively to Biden’s announcement, with several calling for full legalization.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said federal drug policies on marijuana have hurt communities of color and torn families apart.

“These transformative actions are the latest manifestation of Democrats’ unwavering commitment to justice, especially for those unjustly harmed by the criminalization of cannabis,” she said in a statement.

“An important first step toward fair treatment under the law — but we can and will do more when we (extend) our Democratic majorities in November,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly said. said. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine called the move “wise and compassionate.”

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, applauded the move in a statement and called for passage of a bill he sponsored, along with New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who would remove the substance from the controlled substances list and expunge the records of anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime.

“Legal protections for victims of the war on drugs should be codified in law, cannabis should be deprogrammed, and a federal regulatory system should be put in place to protect public health and safety,” he said. declared.

Schumer called the action “historic” and said he hoped it would catalyze further action by Congress.

“For too long, the federal cannabis prohibition and war on drugs has been a war on people, and especially people of color,” the New York Democrat said in a statement. “President Biden’s action to pardon those convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law is a huge step forward in correcting decades of overcriminalization.”

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement that incarcerating people for marijuana possession does not make communities safer and is a waste of money. federal resources.

“We should instead be using these funds for evidence-based prevention and early intervention initiatives that actually reduce crime and save money,” he said.

GOP links pardons to crime

Far more Democrats than Republicans commented on the decision, which aligns with most Americans’ views on marijuana. This month, a MorningConsult/Politico poll found that 60% of respondents supported legalization.

Republicans who commented largely called the initiative soft on crime. Republicans are making rising crime rates a campaign issue in next month’s election.

“In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is granting a blanket pardon to drug addicts – many of whom have pleaded to more serious charges,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas , on Twitter. . An earlier version of the tweet, which was deleted after nine minutes, complained about apologies to “potheads”.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who is retiring this year, said in a statement that the Justice Department should not grant “blanket pardons” and that each offender should be considered individually. Hutchinson was the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

“As governor, I granted hundreds of pardons to those convicted of drug-related offences,” he said. “But in this time of increasing crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are granted.”

Hutchinson is adamantly anti-legalization and has publicly opposed the proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would create a legal marijuana regime in Arkansas.

Candidates campaigning for Congress were also quick to weigh in on the announcement, with Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman saying in a statement that it was “a massive step towards justice”.

“Too many lives — and the lives of black and brown Americans in particular — have been derailed by this criminalization of this plant,” Fetterman said.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for the open Senate seat, tweeted “legalize it” from his Congressional Twitter account.

Schedule 1 drug

Unless Congress changes federal marijuana laws or the President takes other action, marijuana will likely remain classified as a Schedule 1 drug soon.

Senior administration officials said Thursday that it would take some time for the HHS secretary and the attorney general to assess whether marijuana should remain in the highest classification or fall to a lower category within the HHS system. DEA.

“The process will take some time because it must be based on careful consideration of all available evidence, including available scientific…and medical information,” the senior administration official said, adding that although Biden hasn’t set a timetable, he wants the review to be “quick”.

The DEA has five schedule classifications for legal and illegal drugs, with Schedule 1 including substances with high potential for abuse and no medical use. Heroin, LSD and peyote are classified as Schedule 1 drugs along with marijuana.

The next category, Schedule 2, is believed to harbor drugs with high potential for abuse, which can lead to “severe psychological or physical dependence,” according to the DEA. Cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine and oxycodone are all currently classified in Schedule 2.

Schedule 3 includes substances with a low to moderate likelihood of physical and psychological dependence, such as anabolic steroids and testosterone. According to the DEA, Schedule 4 houses drugs like Xanax, Valium, and Ambien that have low potential for abuse. And schedule 5 includes substances with less possibility of abuse than schedule 4.

by Ariana Figueroa, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Sarah Vogelsong with any questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitterr.

Michael A. Bynum