“There are thousands of people who have prior federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions,” Biden said in a statement.
The pardons will also include people who have been convicted of simple possession in the District of Columbia.
The announcement represents the most significant action on marijuana the Biden administration has taken to date — and a major step towards decriminalization.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, even as states have moved toward legal use for recreational and medical purposes.
As a candidate, Biden stopped short of endorsing legalization of recreational marijuana, but he supported moving towards decriminalization.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” he said in a video announcing the move.
The White House is urging governors to take similar action. Administration officials told reporters the pardons could benefit about 6,500 people, though officials said there is nobody in federal prison for simple marijuana possession.
Officials noted there are far more people who have been convicted under state law.
In addition, Biden is asking the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, meaning it is in the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD. According to the federal government, it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
A senior administration official said the review will take time because “it must be based on a scientific review of the evidence,” and the White House is not going to set an “arbitrary deadline.”
—Updated at 3:33 p.m.