WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he is pardoning people with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana, a historic move that could help more than 6,500 people and sends a powerful message on how such actions should be treated.
The vast majority of convictions occur at the state level. The president is urging governors to likewise pardon those offenders.
"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," Biden said in a video announcement. "It's time that we right these wrongs."
Biden is also asking the departments of Justice, and Health and Human Services to review how marijuana should be scheduled under federal law.
White House officials said the president is making the move to fulfill a campaign promise as efforts in Congress to address the issue have stalled.
"As I often said during my campaign for president, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," Biden said. "Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit."
Biden said the "collateral consequences" of convictions for marijuana possession include being denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities.
He also said Black and brown people have been arrested and convicted at disproportionate rates despite using marijuana at similar rates as white people.
The Justice Department will issue certificates of pardons to those eligible. That process will begin implementation "in coming days," according to department spokesman Anthony Coley.
The pardons will apply to those convicted under the District of Columbia's drug laws, which covers "thousands" more people, according to the White House.
The president's pardon also blocks future federal prosecutions for simple possession.
Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. The classification is for drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin and LSD, while fentanyl and methamphetamine are Schedule 2 substances.
Over the years, Congress has enacted dozens of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for all drug-related offenses that led to longer incarceration periods. Repeat offenders were subjected to compulsory sentence enhancements such as doubling up penalties, which vary by substance. Some have even faced mandatory life imprisonment without parole if convicted of a third serious offense, per various reports by the United States Sentencing Commission.
The Justice Department will work with the Department of Health and Human Services on a "scientific review" of marijuana's classification, Coley said. There is no deadline for that review.
Biden emphasized that he does not want to change the rules on trafficking, marketing or underage sales of marijuana.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden pardons federal convictions for marijuana possession