- President Joe Biden’s pardons for federal marijuana possession will help thousands with past convictions.
- Today, however, few people — less than 150 — are in federal prison simply for cannabis possession.
President Joe Biden’s decision to grant pardons to people who have been convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level reflects a broader, bipartisan shift away from incarceration for cannabis.
In a statement on Thursday, Biden said that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.” And while his pardons will be welcome news for those with a federal conviction — an obstacle to stable housing and steady employment — only a handful of people will be freed because of it.
The vast majority of those serving time for drug possession are doing so at the state level, though in his statement announcing the pardons Biden encouraged governors to do the same with prisons in their jurisdictions.
According to the United States Sentencing Commission, a federal agency, in the fiscal year 2021, which ended last June, just 149 people were in federal prison for simple possession of marijuana, down from more than 2,000 in the fiscal year 2015.
The last time the US Sentencing Commission reported federal convictions for simple marijuana possession was in the fiscal year 2017. Then, 92 people were put behind bars for the offense, reflecting a years-long decline in such cases. By comparison, there were 160 such convictions in 2007 — and 267 a decade earlier.
Of those serving time for marijuana offenses, the vast majority were convicted of trafficking. In the fiscal year 2021, according to the commission, 1,005 people were in federal prison for trafficking marijuana, compared to just under 3,500 in 2015.
The overwhelming majority of those in federal prison today for drug offenses are in fact those convicted of trafficking, including of heroin and cocaine: some 17,608 people, per the most recent data, or a little over 30% of all federal prisoners. Just over 300 people — or 0.5% of the total prison population — are behind bars for any sort of drug possession.
Advocates of criminal justice reform said Biden’s pardons will indeed change thousands of lives, but there’s more the White House can do to right what the president now calls the wrongs of the war on drugs.
“Congress is so broken, it’s hard to get some things done, especially on criminal justice — it’s gotten so politicized,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Insider. “It’s really important that he uses clemency authority in a smart way like this — and keeps going.”
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