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DEA to Reschedule Marijuana -- Weed World Reacts [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1210)
Drug War Issues

The DEA has proposed reclassifying marijuana by moving it from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Associated Press reported Tuesday. The plan is for the agency to issue an interim rule reclassifying the substance for the first time since the CSA was enacted more than 50 years ago. Attorney General Merrick Garland (D) will submit the proposal to the White House as early as today.

The move comes months after the Department of Health and Human Services issued a finding that marijuana should be reclassified because it has potential medical benefits and that "the vast majority of individuals who use marijuana are doing so in a manner that does not lead to dangerous outcomes to themselves or others." Acting on a campaign promise, the Biden administration ordered the review in October 2022.

Rescheduling will make it easier for marijuana to be researched for medical uses, potentially opening the door for pharmaceutical companies to get involved in the legal marijuana industry. It will also eliminate significant tax burdens for the industry, including IRS code Section 280E, which bars marijuana businesses from deducting business expenses, leading to effective rates that often go upwards of 70%.

But while it would mark the biggest change in federal marijuana policy in a half-century, it will not make marijuana legal at the federal level. And that leaves industry and marijuana reform advocates not quite satisfied.

"Moving marijuana out of its absurd classification as a Schedule I drug is long overdue and we applaud the administration for finally acknowledging the therapeutic value that has been widely accepted by the medical community and millions of medical cannabis patients for decades," said Aaron Smith, CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association CEO. "While this is undoubtedly a very positive first step, rescheduling will not end federal marijuana prohibition and doesn't harmonize federal law with the laws allowing some form of legal cannabis in the vast majority of the states. For this move to be meaningful on the ground, we need clear enforcement guidelines issued to the DEA and FDA that would ensure the tens of thousands of state-licensed businesses responsibly serving cannabis to adults are not subject to sanctions or criminal prosecution under federal laws."

"Further, it's imperative that Congress build upon this development by passing comprehensive legislation to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and forge a new regulatory framework for whole plant cannabis products," added Smith.

"This is a positive step forward for federal cannabis policy, however, it is a rather modest step given the strong support among American voters for comprehensive cannabis reform," said Matthew Schweich, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "It is important to acknowledge that this rescheduling would not affect the criminalization of medical cannabis patients and cannabis consumers under state laws -- so we must continue the work of enacting sensible and fair cannabis legalization and medical cannabis laws through state legislatures and ballot initiatives."

"It is significant for these federal agencies, and the DEA and FDA in particular, to acknowledge publicly for the first time what many patients and advocates have known for decades: that cannabis is a safe and effective therapeutic agent for tens of millions of Americans," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

But, he added: "The goal of any federal cannabis policy reform ought to be to address the existing, untenable divide between federal marijuana policy and the cannabis laws of the majority of US states. Rescheduling the cannabis plant to Schedule III fails to adequately address this conflict, as existing state legalization laws -- both adult use and medical -- will continue to be in conflict with federal regulations, thereby perpetuating the existing divide between state and federal marijuana policies."

Historically, Schedule III substances have received explicit market approval by the FDA; they are only legal to possess when obtained in licensed pharmacies under a physician's prescription.

"Just as it is intellectually dishonest and impractical to categorize cannabis in the same placement as heroin, it is equally disingenuous and unfeasible to treat cannabis in the same manner as anabolic steroids and ketamine," Armentano said. "The majority of Americans believe that cannabis ought to be legal and that its health risks are less significant than those associated with federally descheduled substances like alcohol and tobacco. Like those latter substances, NORML has long argued that the cannabis plant should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act altogether, thereby providing state governments -- rather than the federal government -- the ability to regulate marijuana in the manner they see fit without violating federal law, and allowing the federal government to provide standards and guidelines for regulated cannabis markets."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), for its part, is calling for a campaign to demand de-scheduling -- removing marijuana entirely from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act -- not rescheduling. It is part of a coalition called United for Marijuana Decriminalization (UMD) that plans to launch an ambitious outreach effort to encourage community members to tell President Biden and the DEA that marijuana must be descheduled once the public comment period is open. Members of the public will be able to submit comments in support of descheduling in response to the DEA's proposal through a simple online form. During the brief, time-limited public comment period, UMD aims to solicit a historic number of public comments through extensive outreach to stakeholders, particularly those who have been harmed by marijuana criminalization, inviting participation in the public process and emphasizing the need for marijuana descheduling."

"Supporting federal marijuana decriminalization means supporting the removal of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, not changing its scheduling," said Cat Packer, DPA director of drug markets and legal regulation. "We all deserve a federal framework for marijuana that upholds the health, wellbeing, and safety of our communities -- particularly Black communities who have borne the brunt of our country’s racist enforcement of marijuana laws. Rescheduling marijuana is not a policy solution for federal marijuana criminalization or its harms, and it won't address the disproportionate impact that it has had on Black and Brown communities."

"The individuals, families and communities adversely impacted by federal marijuana criminalization deserve more," Packer continued. "Workers in the marijuana industry, people who use marijuana, all of us deserve more. Congress and the Biden Administration have a responsibility to take actions now to bring about marijuana reform that meaningfully improves the lives of people who have been harmed by decades of criminalization. Descheduling and legalizing marijuana the right way isn't just good policy, it’s popular with voters, too."

The campaign has the support of some elected officials.

"While the rescheduling of marijuana is a historic step in the right direction, anything short of descheduling falls woefully short of remedying the harms of the current system and the failed racist War on Drugs," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). "Rescheduling would allow for the criminal penalties for recreational and medical marijuana use to continue -- disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. The criminalization of marijuana is also increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion. We need full descheduling and to pass the MORE Act -- which I proudly co-lead -- as a solution for equitable comprehensive marijuana reform rooted in racial and restorative justice."

"Descheduling marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act is not just a social justice issue; it's an economic, medical, and public safety issue. Since marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance during the war on drugs, countless lives have been torn apart, and individuals in primarily Black and brown communities have been targeted for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). "Studies show that legalizing marijuana could help reduce violence in international drug trafficking and generate billions of dollars for the economy. The vast majority of Americans agree that marijuana should be legalized -- that's why I’m calling on the Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Administration to swiftly deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act."

But if the industry and reformers think rescheduling does not go far enough, we can count on professional anti-marijuana activist Dr. Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana to worry that it goes way too far.

"Politics and industry influence have loomed over this decision from the very beginning," Sabet said. "First, HHS refused to provide the public with the scientific basis for its recommendation to reschedule. Then they deliberately redacted key information about their internal process, intentionally limiting transparency on such a major decision impacting public health. Only when compelled by a legal challenge did they provide clarity on their decision, which patently demonstrated that they cooked the books, starting with the decision and working backward to find the supporting materials."

"Now, against the recommendations of prior Attorneys General, the medical community and law enforcement, the Administration unilaterally reversed decades of precedent despite volumes of data confirming marijuana's harmfulness. Moreover, a drug can be taken off Schedule I only if it has accepted medical use -- raw, crude marijuana has never passed safety and efficacy protocols. A drug isn't medicine because it's popular."

"The winners from such a decision are the deep pocketed investors desperately looking for good news in the marijuana space, given the failures of state legalization. We hoped the Administration would prioritize expungements and encouraging additional marijuana research instead of making a political statement that only helps the addiction industry."

That rhetoric may help explain why Sabet's is by way the minority position on the issue.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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