A coalition of 14 Republican congressional lawmakers is urging the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to “reject” the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana and instead keep it in the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
In a letter sent to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram on Monday, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) led a dozen other colleagues in both chambers in arguing that any decision to reschedule cannabis “should be based on proven facts and science—not popular opinion, changes in state laws, or the preferred policy of an administration.”
Of course, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has repeatedly emphasized that its review into marijuana scheduling, directed by President Joe Biden late last year, was science-based. And after 11 months of investigation, it has recommended that marijuana be placed in Schedule III. Milgram has also made clear that DEA’s review will follow the science.
The recommendation to remove marijuana from the DEA’s list of dangerous Schedule I drugs is not based on science—it’s based on an irresponsible pro-pot agenda. pic.twitter.com/pNdBqfCnRN
— Sen. James Lankford (@SenatorLankford) September 12, 2023
The eight GOP senators and six House members evidently distrust the motives behind the HHS recommendation, however, and they argued in the letter, first reported by The Washington Stand, that the current “research, science, and trends support the case that marijuana should remain a Schedule I drug.”
They pointed to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) data on rates of cannabis use disorder and raised concerns about increased THC potency of marijuana products, stating that these “facts indicate that marijuana has a high potential for abuse and that the risk is only increasing.” For what it’s worth, NIDA also reportedly signed off the HHS rescheduling recommendation before it was sent to DEA.
“In 2016, DEA rejected two petitions to reschedule marijuana. The rejection letter stated, ‘At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy,'” the Republican lawmakers wrote. “We believe this analysis is still true today. In fact, HHS recommended at the time that DEA reject these petitions and that marijuana remain in Schedule I.”
The signatories on the letter include several longstanding prohibitionists. In April, Lankford opposed a modest Senate reform proposal to promote research into medical cannabis for military veterans, for example, and he implored Oklahoma voters to reject a marijuana legalization ballot initiative this year.
Sessions, who co-led the letter to the DEA administrator, was responsible for blocking virtually every proposed cannabis amendment from advancing to the floor for years during his time as chairman of the House Rules Committee.
— Jim Risch (@SenatorRisch) September 12, 2023
The other signatories are: Sens. Michael Rounds (R-SD), James Risch (R-ID), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Ted Budd (R-NC), Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), as well as Reps. Chuck Edwards (R-NC), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Hal Rogers (R-KY), Buddy Carter (R-GA) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ).
“The known facts about marijuana have not changed since 2016. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse,” they wrote.
“It is irresponsible for HHS to recommend that marijuana be removed from Schedule I. It would also be irresponsible for DEA to act on this recommendation,” the letter concludes. “Our country relies on DEA to enforce our nation’s drug laws. We ask you to uphold your mission by rejecting any effort to remove marijuana from Schedule I.”
Another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC), separately sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on Tuesday that voices concern about the agency’s rescheduling recommendation and prompts the official with several questions about how it reached its decision.
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Meanwhile, a GOP congressman who does support legalization recently expressed concern that simply moving marijuana to Schedule III may inadvertently lead the pharmaceutical industry to overtake the cannabis industry.
Biden, for his part, hasn’t personally commented on HHS’s rescheduling recommendation, but the White House press secretary did say last month that the president has been “very clear” that he’s “always supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.”
Of course, it’s not accurate to say that Biden has “always” backed cannabis reform. As a senator he championed several pieces of legislation that ramped up the war on drugs.
While marijuana rescheduling would not federally legalize access through current state-level medical cannabis programs, it would free up research into the plant and have significant implications for the marijuana industry.
Congressional lawmakers across party lines have applauded the top health agency’s recommendation. Some have described it as an important “step” on the path to federal legalization. Others have claimed credit for the move, pointing to their years of advocacy around marijuana reform.
Politically, moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III would allow the president to say that he’s helped accomplish a major reform, facilitating an administrative review that may result in rescheduling more than 50 years after the government launched its war on drugs and placed cannabis in the CSA’s most restrictive category.
The change would not, however, fulfill Biden’s campaign pledge to decriminalize marijuana.
Incremental reform could nevertheless bolster momentum for congressional efforts to further change federal cannabis laws, for example a marijuana banking reform bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has described as a priority for the fall session.
Read the Republican lawmakers’ letter to the DEA administrator on marijuana scheduling below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.