Biden marijuana pardons likely to have little effect in Illinois, but federal drug review could have an impact, experts say

President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that he plans to pardon low-level federal marijuana possession convictions will likely have little effect in Illinois, where thousands have already been pardoned.

But Biden’s plan to overhaul the classification that makes cannabis illegal at the federal level could have a profound effect, good or bad, on the industry in Illinois and across the country, a leading legalization advocate has said.

“This is the industry’s biggest single achievement in the last decade on a political level,” said Aaron Smith, CEO and founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Biden announced that he would pardon all prior federal crimes simple possession of marijuana. The action would help some 6,500 people who have convictions and may be denied employment, housing or education as a result.

The president called on the nation’s governors to do the same for states, which are responsible for the vast majority of cannabis convictions. When recreational marijuana became legal in Illinois in 2020, Governor JB Pritzker pardoned more than 9,000 people who had been convicted of low-level marijuana offenses, and nearly half a million cases were dropped by state police. The number of pardons and expungements now stands at nearly 800,000, Pritzker said Thursday in a tweet praising Biden’s actions, which the governor said were overdue.

Edie Moore, a founding member of the Chicago NORML board of directors and a cannabis business owner, said a pardon for simple possession would be very limited, but could reduce some sentences and was “a step in the right direction.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement that Biden’s actions would be especially beneficial to minority communities.

“I am heartened to see the Biden administration take this momentous step toward justice and fairness,” Foxx said. “For a long time it was understood that the war on drugs was a war against Black and Latino communities. This step, which mirrors efforts approved here in Illinois in 2019, is long overdue and a historic first step in repairing the damage done to these communities.”

Biden also announced that he is asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to “promptly” review how marijuana is treated under federal law. Now, the Controlled Substances Act classifies “marijuana” in Schedule I, intended for substances with a high potential for abuse leading to severe addiction and no medical use.

This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and higher than the schedule for fentanyl and methamphetamine, the drugs driving the US overdose epidemic, Biden said.

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Removing cannabis from the list of most dangerous drugs could in effect legalize it, leaving it up to states to regulate it, which would have a huge impact.

But reclassifying it to Schedule II or III could do more damage, Smith said. It could require approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, limit its use to the pharmaceutical industry, kill small businesses and disrupt state programs, he said.

Jeremy Unruh, senior vice president of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, a Chicago-based cannabis company, said Biden’s action delivers on his campaign promises and appears to be laying the groundwork for state expungements.

“Reprogramming is a more delicate and much more complex operation,” Unruh told the Tribune. “Not only does (it require) federal notice and comment agency rule changes that take many months, but the Schedule III designation is not optimal for most state-licensed cannabis companies, regardless of size.”

The Marijuana Policy Project issued a statement welcoming the changes: “In addition to helping to improve the lives of thousands of people under federal law, we hope that this change in focus will signal the complete end to the criminalization of cannabis possession under federal law. federal law.”

The national advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana ( has said it favors decriminalizing possession and expungement of minors.

But SAM President Kevin Sabet downplayed Biden’s announcement. “’You could say it looks pretty big. I think it’s actually quite modest,” he said, adding that he hopes “the legalization movement will be disappointed.”

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