President Joe Biden is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law.
He is also calling on governors to issue similar pardons for those convicted of marijuana offences in their states - which reflect the vast majority of possession cases.
Biden, in a statement, said the move reflects his position that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.”
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana," he added. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
According to the White House, no one is currently in federal prison solely for “simple possession” of the drug, but the pardon could help thousands overcome obstacles to renting a home or finding a job.
“There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result,” he said.
The pardon does not cover convictions for possession of other drugs, or for charges relating to producing or distributing marijuana.
Biden is also not pardoning non-citizens who were in the US without legal status at the time of their arrest.
The Department of Justice is working to devise a process for those covered by Biden's pardon to receive a certificate of pardon, which they can show to potential employers and others as needed.
“The Justice Department will expeditiously administer the President’s proclamation, which pardons individuals who engaged in simple possession of marijuana, restoring political, civil, and other rights to those convicted of that offence," the department said in a statement.
But Biden said he believes that as the federal government and many states ease marijuana laws, they should maintain limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales.
The move by Biden puts the federal government on course with other big cities, like New York, which had been moving toward decriminalising low-level marijuana arrests for years.
But there’s a gaping divide, as some police departments still believe the drug leads to more serious crime and fear not prosecuting lower level offences emboldens criminals.
Advocacy groups praised Biden's announcement, with Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, saying the organisation was “thrilled.”
“There is no reason that people should be saddled with a criminal record — preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities — for something that is already legal in 19 states and D.C. and decriminalised in 31 states," she said.