What Biden's order means for cannabis legalization

Jonathan Rose / Oct 26, 2022
hero-graphic-What Biden's order means for cannabis legalization
Photo Credit: Tabrez Syed via unsplash

Here's what the president's recent announcement does — and doesn't do.

When President Joe Biden made his first major announcement regarding cannabis reform on Oct. 6, it made serious waves — both inside the cannabis industry and with drug reform advocates. But just how big of a deal is the move, and will it have a serious impact on the nation's drug policy? And how about its burgeoning, multibillion-dollar cannabis industry?

We're here to help you make sense of it.

What did President Biden say?

In the announcement, Biden stated that he would be pardoning "federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana" between 1992 and 2021 He also instructed Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to "to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law."

Classifying cannabis at the same level as heroin “makes no sense,” Biden said.

He also encouraged state governors to follow his lead and pardon simple cannabis possession offenses. The U.S. president does not have the authority to pardon state prisoners.

How many prisoners will the move impact?

Long story short: Probably not very many — at least when it comes to getting out of jail. But it could make a big difference in thousands of people's lives.

The White House estimates that more than 6,500 people will be impacted by this move. That doesn't mean that 6,500 people are currently in prison for simple cannabis possession. It simply means that 6,500 have been convicted of the crime.

"The pardon will relieve barriers to opportunity that these marijuana possession convictions have posed for years to housing, educational opportunities, and employment," a senior administration official told reporters on a recent call.

In fact, there are no individuals currently serving federal prison terms for simply possessing cannabis, the official said.

The biggest impact on prisoners will likely be at the state level, should governors follow the president's lead. There were more than a half-million cannabis arrests at the state, county, and local levels in 2019, according to the Last Prisoner Project. The policy-reform nonprofit estimates that more than 40,000 people are locked up for cannabis offenses across the country.

"Texas alone reported more than 21,000 [cannabis] arrests last year, making it responsible for 12% of the nation's total," according to a U.S. News & World Report Analysis.

And odds are that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees one of the strictest medical cannabis programs in the country, won't be following Biden's lead.

Most of the 19 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have legalized adult-use cannabis have also pardoned and/or expunged the records of nonviolent arrestees.

What about descheduling or rescheduling cannabis?

Cannabis is currently listed as a Schedule I drug on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's schedule, which was created by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. That means that it's listed alongside other drugs that purportedly have a high potential for abuse and no known medical applications or benefits.

"Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the 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," Biden said in his statement.

But this is no easy task, according to Vangst Vice President of Partnerships Kelsea Applebaum, who heads internal cannabis education.

"The DEA must first accept the petition, which is no small feat, as illustrated by past attempts to reschedule cannabis," Applebaum said. "The Health and Human Services Secretary must then submit a 'scientific and medical evaluation, and his recommendations, as to whether such drug or other substance should be so controlled or removed as a controlled substance.'”

So what's the bottom line?

True federal cannabis reform — let alone legalization — is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The scheduling process is a long, arduous task, and a change in leadership at the White House could reverse any progress made by this move.

The real action continues to happen in the states, and you can find out what's happening in all 50 of them — along with the requirements necessary to work in legal states — at our Vangst State Requirements Guide.

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