Biden calls for review of marijuana scheduling, pardons thousands for MJ offenses

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(This story was updated with reaction at 5:11 p.m. ET.)

President Joe Biden on Thursday called on the U.S. attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to begin the process of reviewing marijuana scheduling under federal law – a move that could dramatically reshape how the U.S. government treats MJ and the flourishing state-regulated industry that has commercialized the plant.

“Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances,” Biden said in a statement.

“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’s decree comes at a time when marijuana reform measures in Congress continue to stall in the Senate.

Emphasizing the disproportionate impact on racialized communities across the U.S., the president also pardoned all people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, whom he said numbered in the “thousands.”

In addition, Biden called on state governors to pardon marijuana-possession offenses at the state level.

Aaron Smith, the co-founder and CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association, called Biden’s announcement “unprecedented.”

“It’s imperative that we finally harmonize state and federal laws so that Main Street cannabis businesses can supplant underground markets and nobody is ever again put behind bars for a nonviolent marijuana crime,” Smith said in a statement.

“Removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act is the only way to achieve those goals.”

Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called for the president not to stop at rescheduling.

“We … hope that the Biden Administration will go further and fully deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), rather than initiate a process that could lead to rescheduling,” Frederique said in a statement.

Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), called the announcement “long overdue.”

“Moving forward, the Administration must work collaboratively with Congressional leadership to repeal America’s failed marijuana criminalization laws,” Altieri said in a statement.

“Nearly half of voters now agree that legalizing marijuana ought to be a priority of Congress, and such action can only be taken by descheduling cannabis and repealing it from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act – thereby regulating it in a manner similar to alcohol.”

U.S. Cannabis Council CEO Khadijah Tribble commended the news from the White House and called on the Senate to pass cannabis banking reform.

“As the nation reckons with the wrongs of the past, it’s also time to look to the future,” Tribble said in a statement.

“The Senate should pass the SAFE Banking Act,” she said, “to help ensure that the communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition can safely and gainfully participate in the burgeoning cannabis industry.”

Shaleen Title, founder of the Parabola Center for Law and Policy and a former Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner, note in a statement that most marijuana arrests happen at the state level.

She called on Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to “heed the president’s call and pardon all Massachusetts citizens with state-level (marijuana) possession convictions as well.”

The Minority Cannabis Business Association thanked the president on Twitter:

“No one should be in jail for marijuana and today’s announcement is a big *first* step in right the decades of wrongs perpetrated on Black and brown communities. This is just the beginning and we’re ready.”

Kate Robertson can be reached at