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By Luke Sumpter

Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs”. No, these words weren’t expressed by your average cannabis activist; President Joe Biden uttered them on October 6th, 2022 during his statement on marijuana reform. Despite an approval rating of 40%[1], Biden has come up with a plan that will surely bolster support among the two-thirds[2]of Americans who support the legalization of cannabis.

But what exactly will this reform look like? In his announcement, Biden also stated that “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit”. These words conjure ideas of massive reform to cannabis laws that would allow citizens to grow to their heart's content without the risk of arrest. Biden’s remark that “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities” also sounds like he’s vying to remove all of the social stigma surrounding the plant.

If you know anything about politics, you’re well aware that the bold words of politicians are exactly that, especially before elections. So, how will these purported reforms change the legal cannabis landscape in the United States? Below, we’ll cover all of the positive changes you can expect to see, as well as areas that will likely remain exactly as they are now.


No. Not in the slightest. Biden’s proposed marijuana reform will not legalize or decriminalise cannabis. The President made it clear that the plant remains illegal in his announcement, mentioning: “..important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and underage sales should stay in place”. This stance comes as no surprise, considering Biden was the only Democratic candidate in the 2020 election who refused to support the federal de-scheduling of cannabis.

Furthermore, as the president, Biden only has the power to pardon federal crimes—offences that specifically violate federal laws. Suspects are investigated by federal agencies, such as the FBI and DEA, and are taken before federal courts and judges, where they face much higher conviction rates. Among all offenders charged with cannabis-related violations, Biden has opted only to pardon those guilty of “simple cannabis possession”. Any person facing prosecution for growing, supplying, or other offences won’t receive absolution at this time. So, with that out of the way, let’s look at what Biden plans to do in the near future.

State Prisoners

Step One: Pardon Some Federal Offences

First things first, Biden plans on addressing issues within his own federal jurisdiction. By pardoning simple cannabis possession charges through this avenue, the President will impact around 6,500 individuals. Not one person is currently serving time in a federal prison on these grounds. However, reform in this area will help to remove barriers to entry into employment, and will return voting rights. But a simple pardon will only go so far. As mere forgiveness of a crime, it doesn’t declare an individual innocent or clean up their criminal record.

Step Two: Urge States to Pardon Some Offences

In his statement, President Biden also urges states to follow suit—though it remains in the hands of state officials whether they choose to go down the same path. In the United States, federal law establishes the rights of all citizens, whereas state laws add to those rights in their own ways. Many states have already legalized both medical and recreational cannabis, and politicians in these regions have massively outperformed Biden in their approach; Governor Pritzker of Illinois expunged[3] nearly 500,000 cannabis arrest records in 2020. However, simple cannabis possession remains an offence in several states, and Biden’s example will hopefully lead lawmakers in these jurisdictions to make similar changes for the good of the people. While Biden’s federal move will only impact several thousand citizens, the same across all states would affect millions.

Step Three: Federally Reschedule Marijuana

The federal rescheduling of marijuana stands as perhaps the most exciting prospect in Biden’s statement. The President expressed: “...I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law”. Currently, the DEA classifies cannabis as a Schedule I[4] substance alongside LSD, heroin, and ecstasy. Substances placed in this category are deemed to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This definition comes into conflict with state laws that allow the medical prescription of cannabis for a range of health conditions.

Placing cannabis in a lower tier of the Controlled Substances Act would have a dramatic impact on overall restrictions. Reclassifying the herb to Schedule II would place it alongside drugs with some accepted medical value, such as certain painkillers. If the administration decides to place cannabis into Schedule V, it would share the same minimal restrictions as cough syrups that contain small amounts of codeine.

Moving cannabis anywhere below Schedule I would also create positive ripples throughout the research community. Ongoing studies are exploring the potential of cannabis in a wide range of diseases, from cancer and epilepsy to neurodegenerative conditions. Rescheduling would allow researchers to easily access the plant and study its metabolites.

DEA Schedule I List

Where Does Biden’s Plan Fall Short?

Any news of relaxing cannabis laws is good news, especially when heads of state are calling for reform. However, the excitement from Biden’s announcement is not without its limitations. Far from the long-awaited federal legalization of cannabis, the president instead pardoned several thousand people for a minor offence. Because his authority falls outside of state law in some instances, his words may not change anything outside of his own jurisdiction. The possible rescheduling of cannabis could create massive change in the United States, but we’ll have to wait and see the approach the Biden administration takes.

How Did the Previous Presidency Affect Federal Cannabis Legalization?

How does Biden’s reform stand up against his predecessor? During his 2016 run for president, Donald Trump stated that he’d leave the issue of cannabis legalization to individual states. However, it didn’t take his administration long to uphold prohibitive federal laws and even attempt to remove protections for state medical cannabis laws. Despite this, President Trump took the huge step of legalizing hemp under the 2018 Farm Bill[5]. Up until this point, the law made no distinction between hemp and cannabis containing notable amounts of THC—the principal psychoactive component in cannabis.

External Resources:
  1. Biden approval polling tracker https://graphics.reuters.com
  2. Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization | Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org
  3. Pritzker marks New Year’s Eve by expunging nearly half a million marijuana arrest records, pardoning thousands more - Chicago Sun-Times https://chicago.suntimes.com
  4. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Marijuana-Cannabis-2020_0.pdf
  5. The Farm Bill, hemp legalization and the status of CBD: An explainer https://www.brookings.edu
Disclaimer:
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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