With a three-part announcement, President Joe Biden signaled Thursday a major shift in federal marijuana policy, and he's nudging governors to bring states along as well.
Biden said he's issuing pardons for thousands of people with prior federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. This will help those who currently face barriers related to employment, housing and education as a result of their criminal records, he said.
Biden, a Democrat, said he's urging all governors to "do the same" for state-level marijuana offenses, which represent the bulk of marijuana prosecutions nationwide.
"Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either," he said.
Biden also tasked his administration with reviewing "expeditiously" how marijuana is classified under federal law. The drug is currently listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. That classification, alongside heroin, is even higher than fentanyl and methamphetamine, he said.
Even as marijuana regulations change at the federal and state levels, authorities will need to maintain limits on trafficking, marketing and underage sales, Biden said.
U.S. Attorney Jane E. Young, who's been the top federal law enforcement officer for the District of New Hampshire since May, was not immediately available Thursday to respond to a request for comment.
It's not immediately clear how New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, will respond to Biden's urging. A spokesperson for the governor's office said Sununu and the state's Department of Justice are reviewing Biden's actions.
Under state law and the New Hampshire constitution, pardons must go before the governor and Executive Council for consideration, so Sununu cannot unilaterally pardon anyone, the spokesperson noted.
"Governor Sununu has done more on the issues surrounding marijuana reform than any other Governor in New Hampshire history," the spokesperson added. "After years of inaction by Democrat governors, Chris Sununu signed commonsense decriminalization so no one would be jailed for simple possession of minor amounts of marijuana, expanded access to medical marijuana, and provided a pathway to annul old convictions for marijuana possession."
As surrounding states have legalized marijuana, Sununu continues to oppose marijuana legalization in New Hampshire. He reiterated his stance within the past week.
"We still have a massive drug crisis going on across this country. Right now really is not the time. It's not a 'never' thing. But now is not the time," Sununu in an interview with Adam Sexton for WMUR's CloseUp that aired Sunday. "We need a few other pieces, I think, in place to make sure that we have the constructs there to provide kind of the safety backstop, if you will, if you were to take that (legalization) step."
A spokesperson for Sununu's reelection campaign did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.
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The Democrat running against Sununu in the Nov. 8 general election, Dr. Tom Sherman, said he would move forward with marijuana pardons and legalization.
"I believe pardoning people convicted of nonviolent simple possession of marijuana is the right thing to do, and as governor I would expedite efforts to do so for state-level offenses," said Sherman. "Unlike Chris Sununu, for years I've also supported legalizing adult-use cannabis, just like every state around us has done."
Five years ago, New Hampshire decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Since then, the number of arrests in New Hampshire for marijuana possession has declined, from nearly 4,000 arrests in 2016 to about 1,100 in 2021, according to National Incident-Based Reporting System data compiled by the FBI.
Even as marijuana has remained illegal at the federal level, 19 states have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 18 states, including New Hampshire, allow medical marijuana.
Biden's announcement comes after Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced a marijuana legalization package in July that would expunge federal criminal records for nonviolent cannabis offenses. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said he looked forward to bipartisan collaboration on marijuana policy reform "to get something done this year."
Update (Oct. 6, 2022): This post was updated to include a statement from the governor's office.