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Biden pardoning prior federal offenses of marijuana possession

President Biden is pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, the White House announced Thursday, although senior officials stressed to reporters that there are currently no people currently in federal prisons solely for simple possession of marijuana. The president is also asking the Health and Human Services secretary to review how marijuana is classified under federal law.

Senior administration officials told reporters Thursday that more than 6,000 people with prior federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana — and thousands of others convicted under Washington, D.C., law — could benefit.

In addition, the president is urging all governors to pardon state offenses of simple marijuana possession. Liberals have long pressed Mr. Biden to legalize cannabis. The announcement, which falls short of legalization, comes barely a month out from competitive midterm elections that will determine control of the House and Senate.

The president said he's directed Attorney General Merrick Garland to develop a process to issue certificates of pardon to eligible Americans, a move to help relieve the consequences for those who could be denied housing or employment. He is also asking HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to review and reconsider marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug, a classification meant for the most dangerous substances.

"This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic," the president said.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate nominee and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has urged Mr. Biden to legalize cannabis. The White House reached out to Fetterman earlier Thursday to give him a heads up on the announcement, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

"As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," the president said in a statement Thursday. He specifically called out the disproportionate impact such prosecutions have had in minority communities.

"Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates."

The president still wants limitations on the trafficking, marketing and underage sales of weed to stay in place.

"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Mr. Biden said. "It's time that we right these wrongs."

The move away from punishment for marijuana possession is a shift for Mr. Biden. As vice president, he staunchly opposed the drug. In 2010, he told ABC News, "I still believe it's a gateway drug," and legalizing it would be "a mistake."

Gaby Ake and Kristin Brown contributed to this report.

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