In a move that signals major change in United States drug policy, President Joe Biden has ordered the expunction (deletion) of all past federal convictions for the possession of cannabis.
The promise to pardon the thousands of Americans convicted of the offence and remove offences of, and relating, to the possession of cannabis is one the president appears to be adhering to.
He says he will now be calling on state governors in jurisdictions that have not already done so to legalise the plant and expunge convictions in a similar manner.
He has also tasked Merrick Garland, who is federal attorney-general and minister for health and human services, to “expeditiously” review related laws to ensure they are not indirectly leading to the criminalisation of the possession or use of cannabis.
Perhaps the most obvious way this is occurring in Australian jurisdictions is by way of the offence of driving with an illicit substance present in the bloodstream, or ‘drug driving’, whereby a person can be charged and convicted for having minute quantities of THC in their bloodstreams – amounts that are insufficient to impair driving ability.
Separate category for marketing and trafficking
Mr Biden has further called for the plant to be removed from the category of marketing and trafficking laws that criminalise drugs such as heroin, methamphetamines, LSD and cocaine – and put in a separate category which has lower maximum penalties
Drug possession should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal offence
The moves bring the United States closer in line with other nations – such as Portugal, Norway and Denmark – that have gone a step further by legalising or at least decriminalising the possession of formerly illicit drugs for personal use.
Each of these nations has reaped social and economic benefits from their move away from criminalisation – with less drug overdoses, more people coming forward for assistance, lower rates of HIV from the use of shared syringes, less spent on enforcing drug laws and, to the surprise of many, rates of use not increasing.
State versus federal laws
While there is no one currently serving time in the US for federal mairjuana possession, statistics suggest that there are at least 6,000 Amercians currently facing charges, and thousands more who have already been prosecuted.
Of course, some US states have already legalised the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes: including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New York, Nevada and Oregon amongst others, and it is emerging as a dominant political issue ahead of the upcoming November elections. Candidates in States where marijuana possession and use is still a criminal offence are making the legalization of marijuana central to their election campaigns in a bid to win majority votes.
Why the US federal law change is important
Legal experts, advocates for legalisation and politicians leading the charge for change in the US say that amending the federal laws is important because even though many individual states have moved towards legalising marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, some users are still vulnerable to federal prosecution anyway, despite what jurisdiction they are in, because of marijuana’s placement on the Controlled Substances list within 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
According to some statistics from the US, smoking marijuana is now more popular than smoking tobacco. In a Gallup Poll taken in August this year 16% of respondents admitted to smoking marijuana in the previous week, compared to just 11% who had admitted to smoking tobacco.
Tobacco usage has been in decline in America for many years, but in the same Gallup Poll this year, nearly a third (30%) of adult respondents under the age of 35 said they smoke marijuana on a regular or semi-regular basis, as did 16 percent of those people surveyed aged 35-54 and 7% of respondents over the age of 55.
The devastating impact of a criminal conviction
In a speech announcing his moves towards the legalisation of cannabis, Mr Biden noted the unfairness of being criminally convicted for possessing the plant.
“It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates … Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” the president stated.
Time for us to follow suit
Many might consider it a bold move for the US – it’s certainly one that has grabbed international headlines this week, perhaps because it’s not the first time moves have been made at a federal level advocating marijuana law reform, without success.
It is however, a move that offers renewed hope for drug decriminalisation advocates here in Australia, that our own politicians might follow America’s lead and finally stop debating and actually push forward with law reform, which has been recommended by various experts for many many years.