President Joe Biden took historic action Thursday to pardon thousands of people convicted of cannabis possession and review federal cannabis laws. His actions come as Democrats stare down the midterm elections, while battling rising inflation and an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Today, I’m taking steps to end our failed approach,” Biden tweeted on Thursday.
In a series of tweets , Biden outlined steps to make good on some of the cannabis-related promises he made during the runup to the 2020 election. First, he pardoned “all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession,” before calling on governors to do the same at the state level.
“There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My pardon will remove this burden,” he tweeted.
Cannabis nonprofit Last Prisoner Project estimates the federal pardons will impact roughly 6,500 people. Despite that, it's become more commonplace in recent years for states that legalize cannabis to include expungement provisions in their legalization measures. The numbers of individuals convicted with cannabis possession at the state level likely numbers in the millions, according to Last Prisoner Project COO Natalie Papillion.
“This is the most significant step taken by a U.S. president towards removing the criminal penalties associated with marijuana possession," Papillion said. "I am hopeful that this announcement by President Biden signals a sea change in the way the entire country treats cannabis criminalization.
"And I really, in my heart of hearts, I do feel relatively confident that this may indicate the beginning of the end of our failed war on drugs,” she said.
Given the nature of pardons, these measures are retroactive only, and will not apply to people convicted of cannabis possession moving forward. But Papillion anticipates federal prosecutors could deprioritize prosecuting cannabis possession.
Furthermore, if cannabis scheduling changes, she said there could be all sorts of domino effects ranging from a drop in prosecution of cannabis-related crimes to a reduction or reallocation of funds for law enforcement agencies to pursue cannabis convictions.
Criminal justice has become a cornerstone of legalization efforts nationwide as states push ahead to empower entrepreneurs and growing companies to profit from cannabis sales, even as individuals saddled with convictions still bear the consequences of those past actions.
“This is wonderful and long overdue news as it relates to the release and pardon of folks who are in custody for simple marijuana possession,” said Kim Rivers, CEO of Florida-based cannabis multistate operator Trulieve. “It's fantastic to see President Biden fulfilling one of his campaign promises to those folks who have been impacted most severely by the war on drugs, and who are currently serving time for a plant that many of us are able to legally consume under the legal medical markets and recreational markets and in various states.”
Biden also called on the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review how cannabis is scheduled in the Controlled Substances Act. It is currently classified in Schedule 1, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” alongside drugs like heroin, LSD, and MDMA.
“We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense,” Biden tweeted, adding in a subsequent tweet that “we still need important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and underage sales of marijuana.”
It still isn’t clear what might come of the review or the timeframe for possible de-scheduling or rescheduling of cannabis. When Biden ran for president in 2020, his campaign promises included rescheduling cannabis into Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act, which would group it alongside drugs like methadone, oxycodone and fentanyl, but would clear the way for more research on the drug.
Even so, industry executives applauded the action.
“We think this is the moment we've all been waiting for,” Ben Kovler, CEO of Chicago-based cannabis multistate operator Green Thumb Industries, told Cheddar News. “And, hopefully, we're going to see major progress.”
Biden’s actions make good on some -- but not all -- of the cannabis-related promises he made. Biden pledged, for example, to support medical cannabis legalization, while allowing states to choose for themselves whether or not to legalize adult use cannabis. But the action does come at a crucial time for Democrats ahead of a tough midterm election.
“Because this has been such a long time coming, it would be highly skeptical to suggest that it's purely a political maneuver,” Mason Tvert, partner at VS Strategies, the policy and public affairs affiliate of cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg, told Cheddar News. “I don't care what inspired him to take the action right now, what's important is that he did it. The intention should not be overshadowed by the accomplishment.”
Cannabis has proven increasingly popular among the electorate on both sides of the aisle. According to Pew Research Center, 91 percent of adults say cannabis should be legal for medical only or for medical and recreational use.
The issue is still more popular among Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults, with 95 percent agreeing cannabis should be legal in some form, but it is gaining traction among more conservative adults, as well. Some 87 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults agree cannabis should be legalized in some form.
Lawmakers at the federal level have been slower to come around to the issue, but there are cannabis-related bills addressing banking reform, criminal justice, research and decriminalization in Congress.
While experts like Tvert say that cannabis isn’t a top tier issue for most voters, this action could influence some voters at the ballot boxes, especially in tight races -- for better or for worse.
From a short term business perspective, this update means little for cannabis companies like Trulieve and Green Thumb Industries. But investors are still taking the win.
Cannabis stocks surged following Biden’s announcement. Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth, which has broad exposure to the U.S., ended the day up 22.2 percent. Tilray closed up close to 31 percent. Trulieve and Green Thumb Industries, which trade over the counter in the U.S., closed up 36 percent and 30.3 percent, respectively.
“Stocks have been down and under pressure, partially because expectations, as it related to federal cannabis reform, have not been met. And coupled with, of course, macro pressures that a lot of companies are experiencing," Rivers said. "So I think that this is seen as a bit of a relief valve to instill confidence in the market and in investors that all hope is not lost at the federal level.”
Should Biden, Garland and Becerra make good on plans to revise cannabis scheduling, that could mean big opportunities for cannabis companies like Trulieve, which already operates 175 retail locations across 10 states.
Rivers said the company has cash reserves and is in a position to expand rapidly should federal policy change, while Kovler said Green Thumb Industries is focusing on its products and building brands to appeal to American consumers.