President Biden offered pardons Thursday to thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, as U.S. states and other governments around the world reconsider their approach toward the drug, with some moving to decriminalize or legalize it.
Here’s what you need to know about how U.S. marijuana policies and laws compare to those of other countries.
What does Biden’s offer of mass pardons for people convicted of simple marijuana possession mean?
More than 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in the United States in 2018, according to the latest available data from the American Civil Liberties Union. (Not all arrests lead to charges and convictions.) But Biden’s announcement applies only to federal prosecutions, a fraction of people affected by possession laws. His pardon power does not extend to those convicted under state law.
“Many if not most people serving time are in state systems,” said Griffen Thorne, an attorney at Harris Bricken, a law firm that works with cannabis companies. (Biden also called on state governors Thursday to offer similar pardons.)
No one is serving time in a federal prison solely for the crime of marijuana possession, White House officials said Thursday, though more than 6,500 people may have such convictions on their records.
How do the United States’ policies stack up against the rest of the world?
Possessing or consuming marijuana for any reason is illegal under federal law, but as of February, 37 states and the District of Columbia had authorized it for medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, at least 19 states and D.C. had legalized recreational marijuana for adults as of May.
Technically, “every state-level marijuana program is a complete violation of federal law,” Thorne said, but the federal government has “looked the other way.”
A handful of countries have legalized recreational use of marijuana, though there are many gray areas and caveats. Places where it is legal to recreationally use cannabis include Uruguay, Canada and Malta. In some cases, there are restrictions on age, quantities and transport of the drug.
South Africa decriminalized adult use of cannabis in private, although purchasing or selling it remains illegal. Thailand this year legalized growing and trading marijuana. However, government officials have warned that “nonproductive” use of the drug — such as smoking it outside — could lead to penalties such as short prison terms.
Germany’s coalition government pledged before taking office last year to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Australia allows medical marijuana, but recreational use at home is only legal in the Australian Capital Territory, encompassing Canberra and surrounding townships. Personal use of limited quantities of cannabis is tolerated in the Netherlands, though it’s technically illegal.
“Certainly, there are other countries that have liberal policies and are more consistent about it,” said Robert Mikos, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in drug law. “But because we have so many states that have legalized adult recreational or medical use, I would count the U.S. as one of the more progressive countries.”
Is the world moving toward legalizing marijuana for personal use?
Momentum toward legalizing marijuana is ramping up in Latin America and Africa, Thorne said.
A 2018 Constitutional Court decision paved the way for South Africa to decriminalize personal use, and President Cyril Ramaphosa said this year that his government would work on bolstering its domestic cannabis sector, Reuters reported. Peru legalized medical use in 2017, and Zimbabwe did so in 2018.
Marijuana is one of the world’s most widely consumed drugs, with roughly 147 million people — about 2 percent of the global population — using it annually, according to the World Health Organization. U.S. adults between the ages of 19 and 30 also used marijuana at record levels last year, the National Institutes of Health reported.
But there are pockets of opposition in parts of the world, particularly Asia. In a 2020 referendum, New Zealand voters narrowly rejected legalizing cannabis for nonmedicinal use. It is available there with a prescription. Singapore — whose tough drug laws extend to cannabis — also recently signaled that it would not move to permit medicinal marijuana in the near future.
Does the mass pardon for marijuana possession have global significance?
Maybe. U.S. drug policy has long influenced how the world treats marijuana. Since the 1960s, the United States has championed international conventions and treaties that required participating countries to ban recreational cannabis, said Mikos, the law professor.
But now that dozens of U.S. states have legalized cannabis for recreational or medicinal use, several countries “have taken that as a green light to go ahead and start experimenting,” he said.