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Biden pardons thousands of people convicted on federal marijuana possession charges

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden has pardoned thousands of people convicted on federal marijuana possession charges. The pardons don't apply to people convicted of distributing or selling marijuana. Biden is urging governors to follow his lead and pardon those convicted on state charges of simple cannabis possession. State level convictions far outnumber federal ones. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Advocacy groups have long called for a federal pardon as one step in addressing the racial bias in the criminal justice system, something Biden noted in his video address announcing the move.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.

WESTERVELT: But the presidential pardons directly impact only a small number of people caught up in America's long war on drugs - about 6,500 with federal drug convictions across the country and several thousand more in the District of Columbia. Officials said no one is currently serving time in federal prisons solely for simple marijuana possession. So the move is seen as symbolism, as much as powerful policy. Biden said imprisoning people for marijuana possession, quote, "has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit."

LENORE ANDERSON: This is really about setting a tone. What do we believe in? What is the best way to handle something like this? And it matters for that reason.

WESTERVELT: That's Lenore Anderson, president of the justice reform group Alliance for Safety and Justice. She calls the move a long overdue and smart policy change. The pardons, she says, will help start to unwind racial inequities and the devastating ripple effects pot convictions can have.

ANDERSON: For jobs, for housing, loans, occupational licenses. In many ways, old records can lead to a lifetime of post-conviction poverty. And that's not good for public safety, and it's not good for the economy.

WESTERVELT: About 98% of all marijuana arrests are at the state level, and it's there that hundreds of thousands more still face those conviction hurdles. Still, Biden's move makes good on a campaign pledge and marks a potentially giant shift in federal drug policy, at least towards pot. Erik Altieri is executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which has pushed for this kind of change for decades.

ERIK ALTIERI: Today was a huge step in the right direction and really a historic move to see coming from a sitting president of the United States.

WESTERVELT: Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. That means more than 40% of the U.S. population today lives somewhere where pot is legal. Five more states vote on legalization next month. Thirty-eight states have legalized medical use of cannabis. A growing number of states have recently taken steps to expunge old pot convictions, including Illinois and Colorado. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, recently signed a bill that seals old cannabis-related convictions. Altieri and other advocates say to give everyone the fair second chance they deserve, more governors need to heed Biden's call to take action on pardons.

ALTIERI: For lawmakers across the country, this really provides a lot of momentum to actually move forward on this, knowing that you're looking at a administration that is broadly supportive of these efforts, and they're not going to crack down on your states. And, in fact, you know, they're kind of giving you that permission framework to really go ahead and pursue marijuana justice.

WESTERVELT: Biden stopped short of calling for full decriminalization and reiterated that the federal government still needs, quote, "important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales of marijuana." But he called on his administration to move quickly to review how marijuana is classified under federal law. It's currently listed as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin and other hard drugs driving the nation's addiction and overdose epidemics. Altieri with NORML hopes that review marks a big step toward the federal government eventually descheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

ALTIERI: So it's treated the same as alcohol is and regulated by the states and the federal government gets out of the game of prohibition.

WESTERVELT: But that federal decriminalization effort faces a bigger, longer process and one that falls to Congress, where the effort faces a much tougher road. Several GOP members blasted the pardons, including Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who called it a desperate attempt at distraction just weeks ahead of midterm elections.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.