Cannabis leaf against a green background. What Biden's marijuana policy really means

What Does Biden’s Marijuana Pardon Really Mean?

Fact Checked and Peer Reviewed

President Biden’s pardon of those convicted of marijuana possession was big news, but what does it really mean?

On October 6, 2022, President Biden issued a pardon for thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession offenses under federal law. Additionally, in his presidential proclamation, Biden announced that his administration would evaluate marijuana’s status as a Schedule I Controlled Substance. While this pardon will not affect people convicted at a state or local level, people convicted under District of Columbia laws will also be cleared. President Biden also urged governors to follow suit on a state level, as the number of people convicted under state law far exceeds federal law. The pardon impacts people convicted for “simple possession”; this will not apply to people convicted of selling or distributing marijuana. Though officials state that currently, no people are serving time in federal prison for solely marijuana possession, according to records, it is estimated that 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession between 1992 and 2021. The pardon will help people previously convicted in seeking housing, employment, education, and federal benefits.

While a pardon does not automatically expunge one’s record or symbolize innocence, it does represent an expression of the president’s forgiveness. Citizens who have been pardoned regain their right to vote, sit on a jury, and hold office. Certain individuals may need to obtain proof that they qualify for Biden’s proclamation, and this proof will be presented to the attorney general. This whole process is facilitated by the pardon attorney, who is currently in the process of developing a procedure for individuals to receive certificates of pardon for the marijuana pardon as well as those that become relevant in the near future.

Although rates of marijuana usage are comparable across racial and ethnic groups, African American and Hispanic populations are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for possession. Having this conviction on your record leads to barriers to numerous social opportunities, exacerbating racial disparities. While President Biden did not move to call for full decriminalization of marijuana, this is the first significant step by a US President to remove criminal penalties surrounding marijuana possession. Going forward, it remains to be seen how governors will respond to marijuana possession convictions in their own states. This pardon is effective as of October 6, 2022, meaning that federal convictions going forward will not be protected under the proclamation. 

Who does this pardon apply to?

  • People who were convicted under federal law
  • People who were convicted under District of Columbia law
  • People who were convicted for “simple possession” of marijuana

Who does this pardon NOT apply to?

  • People who were convicted under state or local law (other than the District of Columbia)
  • People who were convicted of selling or distributing, or of possession with intent to distribute
  • People convicted of possession of a drug other than marijuana
  • People who may be convicted in the future

What does this mean for you if you currently use cannabis?

Despite this pardon, federal law has not yet changed. If you are arrested for simple possession of marijuana on federal property or as part of a federal drug bust in the future, this pardon will not stop you from being convicted and sentenced. This pardon also has no direct effect on state law, so it’s important to check your local regulations to see whether cannabis is legal in your state. President Biden’s pardon and intent to have marijuana’s status as a controlled substance evaluated may have an effect on future laws and regulations, but for the moment, the impact is limited.

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Nina Rosenberg is a corporate operations intern at Workit Health interested in addiction care through a public health lens. She is currently in her senior year at the University of Michigan where she studies Community and Global Public Health. She is excited to continue learning from her experiences at Workit.

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