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Biden is taking executive action to pardon simple federal marijuana convictions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden announced today he is pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It's time that we right these wrongs.

KELLY: Democratic activists have long sought changes to marijuana laws. Biden himself pledged to do something about it while campaigning for president. NPR's Asma Khalid has been tracking this and is with us now. Hey there, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: OK, give us some detail. What exactly did the president announce this afternoon?

KHALID: The president announced executive action to erase prior convictions for people convicted of simple marijuana possession under either federal or D.C. statute - so federal law or D.C. statute. And in a video that the White House disseminated, the president spoke about what this could mean.

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BIDEN: There are thousands of people who were convicted for marijuana possession who may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result of that conviction. My pardon will remove this burden on them.

KHALID: So to give you a sense of how many people that means, more than 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession between 1992 and 2021 under federal law, and then this also will apply to thousands more under the D.C. code. But many marijuana convictions occur at the state level, and so the president is also urging governors to take similar steps in their states.

KELLY: So what does this mean? Does this mean Biden is supporting the decriminalization of marijuana?

KHALID: No, he did not go that far, Mary Louise. And it is worth pointing out that the president did say in his comments today that, even as federal and state regulations around marijuana change, we still need, quote, "important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales of marijuana." But what he did do today is ask the Health and Human Services secretary and the attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. It's currently classified in the same category as heroin and LSD - more serious than fentanyl - which the president himself says makes no sense.

KELLY: OK. What has the reaction to this move been?

KHALID: So, you know, Mary Louise, one of the main criticisms of marijuana laws for years has been that there is a disproportionate impact on Black and brown people. I've heard this issue framed as a racial justice issue in many previous campaigns on the Democratic side. And the president himself acknowledged the racial impact today. We did see swift praise from groups like the NAACP and Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

But at the same time, you know, Republicans have been eager to run as the party in this election cycle that is tough on crime and paint Democrats as being soft on crime, and this could play into that broader narrative. For example, Senator Tom Cotton was quick to call this, quote, "blanket pardons for drug offenders" in, quote, "the midst of a crime wave."

KELLY: Well, speaking of politics, I got to ask you about timing. You got to wonder about the timing of everything with the midterms four weeks away. Is that a coincidence?

KHALID: You know, I was on a call earlier today in which senior administration officials held - with reporters about this announcement, and they were certainly asked about the timing. Why now? Why, given the fact that this could have happened potentially earlier with executive action? And, you know, administration officials insist these moves are about fulfilling a campaign commitment that Biden made. Of course, as you say, there is always politics at play here. This announcement was put out in a video made for sharing on social media. And this is important because our latest NPR/Marist Poll released this morning found that young and Black voters were the least likely to vote this November.

KELLY: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: My pleasure. Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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