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The Marijuana Pardon: Biden pardons thousands for drug possession heralding era of legalisation

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President Biden has issued a pardon to thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.

The pardon on Thursday applies to those convicted of ‘simple possession’ since it became a crime in the 1970s.

The offence was originally codified in the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, at the start of Nixon’s campaign to reduce illegal drug trade in the US, coined the ‘War on Drugs’. 

Biden’s landmark pardon represents the beginning of the end of the government’s purge on small drug charges which caused a steep rate of incarceration.

From the 1970s, and throughout the height of violent crime throughout the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration levels in the US increased more than threefold.

In 2018, there were 698 people incarcerated per 100,000.

But one striking disparity, largely caused by misdemeanour drug charges, has been the rate of incarceration between different races.

Black Americans, who make up 13% of the population, are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans who make up 64% of the population. 

Officials estimate that at least 6,500 Americans who have been convicted for simple possession of marijuana from 1992-2021 will benefit. 

The pardon also clears people convicted under District of Columbia drug laws, because DC is in itself a federal district and does not have state-level power, with this number expected to be in the thousands. 

However, the pardon falls short of making the substantial reform needed to help rebalance the staggering rate of incarceration levels in the US.

This is because most convictions for possession occur at state level, with zero Americans in federal prison solely on possession charges. 

Due to the nature of the US’ federal system, a lot of power still lies in the states’ hands. 

There are many states that no longer prohibit this behaviour, meaning that for thousands of Americans, the federal pardon frees them.

Recreational marijuana use is already legal in 19 states and medical use is legal in 37 states and three US territories. 

But for those in conservative states which heavily penalise small drug charges, the upending of lives for misdemeanours will continue.

The President is due to call upon state governors to issue their own pardons. 

What the pardon will help with is education, housing and employment, as it restores complete political and civil rights. 

The pardons come a month before November’s critical midterm elections which will determine the power balance in Congress for the remainder of President Biden’s term in office. 

Decriminalising cannabis use and reversing drug convictions was a key part of Biden’s campaign for office in 2020.   

The promise was heavily remarked upon, with people noting that Biden wrote a 1994 crime bill that hardened penalties and, in turn, led to increased imprisonment of minorities.

President Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act expanded the death penalty, eliminated the possibility of Pell Grants for inmates, inflated community policing and 

The act also prohibited the production of assault weapons for civilian use, established registries for sex offenders and enhanced privacy of public driving databases following abuse of abortion patients by campaigners who had found their details publicly.

Biden’s Senate re-write also incorporated the Violence Against Women Act which pledged millions of dollars towards investigating violence against women. 

The ideological U-turn represents not just the political reality of campaigning on a centrist Democratic base, but also how times have shifted. 

Alongside the proclamation of the pardon issued by the White House, Biden is also directing the Department of Justice (DoJ) and Department of Health (DoH) to review how cannabis is classified under federal law. 

Currently, as a response to increased crack cocaine and marijuana use in the latter half of the 20th Century, and the related wave of violent crime, marijuana sits in the same class with heroin and LSD. 

This is especially pertinent considering the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic on the American population, with increasing prescriptions of drugs containing heroin leading to widespread misuse and a public health emergency. 

In the UK, cannabis is a class B drug, whereas heroin is a class A drug. 

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