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President Biden wants a speedy review to potentially reschedule or deschedule cannabis as an illegal drug, U.S. Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra told the press in Tampa, Florida, last Friday.
“The president was very clear — he wants this done as quickly as possible,” Becerra said, according to the Florida Phoenix. “It’s not new science, but there’s a lot of information to gather because, in many states, marijuana has been legalized for either medical purposes or recreational purposes.”
Never mind that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is the lead sponsor. Never mind that 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a figure that includes 83% of Democrats and half of Republicans. And never mind that there’s a midterm election coming up in which passage would be an undeniable boost to Democrats’ electoral fortunes.
Booker and the others wrote a letter to the president asking for marijuana to be removed from the list of Schedule 1 drugs. They also called on Biden to pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana crimes.
The letter stated in part, "The administration's failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy, is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes.”
However, under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 illegal drug with no medical uses, on par with heroin and LSD. The Drug Enforcement Agency strictly limits marijuana cultivation for research, frustrating scientists who are unable to investigate its medical benefits and risks under current regulations.
Rescheduling marijuana for research was an oft-repeated promise of President Joe Biden’s campaign, along with a pledge to decriminalize the use of cannabis and grant clemency to people with federal marijuana convictions.
U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren last week sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging that the Department of Justice remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances list.
The Democratic senators, from New Jersey and Massachusetts, respectively, wrote that descheduling marijuana is long overdue and “would allow states to regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws, and facilitate valuable medical research.”
The policy has even affected staffers whose marijuana use was exclusive to one of the 14 states—and the District of Columbia—where cannabis is legal. Sources familiar with the matter also said a number of young staffers were either put on probation or canned because they revealed past marijuana use in an official document they filled out as part of the lengthy background check for a position in the Biden White House.
Biden on Tuesday said he plans to nominate Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of HHS.
In December, the president-elect announced that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was his nominee to serve as head of the department.
The nominees, if confirmed, could be important for the marijuana industry given that HHS would play a key role in any attempt to reschedule marijuana or remove it from the list of federally controlled substances.
Legalization not really on his radar
So where does that leave the presumptive attorney general?
Throughout his career as a judge and federal prosecutor, Merrick Garland has had very little to say about cannabis.
His most direct comments on the subject date back to 2012, during a federal hearing on the scheduling of cannabis. In that hearing, cannabis advocates sought to challenge the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug—the most restrictive category, reserved for “drugs of abuse” with no proven medical value.