A coalition of 85 civil rights and drug policy reform groups are sending a letter to President Joe Biden and other key federal officials on Thursday, using the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20 to urge the administration to deschedule cannabis and support comprehensive legalization legislation.
The letter, led by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) with other signatories like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, further outlines administrative steps that officials can take in the interim to build on Biden’s mass marijuana pardon last year and repair some of the harms of prohibition.
The groups applauded the clemency proclamation, as well as Biden’s directive for a review into marijuana’s scheduling status, but they pointed to a number of limitations to both actions.
For example, the pardon explicitly excluded non-citizens, who “face mandatory detention, deportation, and other immigration consequences based on minor possession convictions.” It also does not affect possession cases that happen after the proclamation was issued.
The coalition also raised concerns about the scheduling review process, stating that even if it did ultimately result in moving marijuana to a lower schedule, cannabis would still be criminalized and the same racially disproportionate enforcement trends would likely persist.
“While you have taken the bold first step toward administrative review, it remains unclear whether enough research has been conducted that will satisfy the way Health and Human Services (HHS) has traditionally applied the 8-factor analysis required,” it continues.
That’s partly because domestic research into cannabis has been stymied by the fact that the plant is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the letter says.
“We urge HHS and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to interpret the statutory requirements in a way that better reflects the political and scientific realities of marijuana,” it continues. “If the available science is generally as limited…there is a reasonable probability marijuana could remain in Schedule 1 despite it obviously not belonging there.”
“While we must take science into account, we must also recognize that until very recently, marijuana had significantly more research barriers compared to other Schedule I substances,” the groups said.
Beyond encouraging the agencies to adopt a more flexible interpretation of the statutory requirements, the coalition said that the administration should form a task force “to explore the appropriate schedule status of marijuana that takes into account factors that cannot be considered by HHS or DOJ agencies during the formal scheduling review.”
For instance, that task force should look at marijuana research conducted outside of the U.S., like in Israel. It could also take into account the “political and social implications of marijuana’s Schedule I status.”
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The letter further calls on the administration to direct agencies to stop using state-level marijuana convictions as the basis for denying federal benefits or deporting people. DOJ could also issue guidance to stop prosecuting individuals over low-level marijuana offenses, and officials could additionally institute a policy rolling back stringent drug testing requirements for federal workers, the groups suggested.
In general, federal agencies like the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs (VA) should “adopt policies to lessen the collateral consequences of a marijuana conviction with respect to accessing federal benefits.” VA specifically could also enact rules allowing veterans to access medical cannabis.
“The administrative descheduling of marijuana, coupled with other administrative actions, would be a huge step forward on criminal justice reform and would lay the cornerstone upon which additional components of comprehensive marijuana reform could be built,” the letter says.
But simply descheduling would still pose problems without a regulatory framework in place for marijuana, the groups said. For example, unregulated interstate commerce could give large corporations an advantage that could threaten small businesses and social equity licensees.
“Additionally, administrative descheduling would not be applied retroactively, nor would descheduling expunge federal marijuana arrests, seal records, or protect noncitizens from detention or deportation for marijuana conduct,” it says. “This means the White House must work with Congress to pass comprehensive descheduling legislation.”
The letter specifically references the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues filed last year as exemplary of thoughtful legalization legislation.
“We implore you to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure marijuana is descheduled and encourage Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that includes criminal justice reform, repairing and centering communities most harmed by prohibition and criminalization, and a regulatory framework that is rooted in equity, justice, and public health,” the groups conclude.
Other signatories on the letter include: Better Organizing to Win Legalization, Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, Center for American Progress, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Justice Roundtable, Last Prisoner Project, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Marijuana Policy Project, NORML, Parabola Center for Law and Policy, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, The Weldon Project, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and more.
The letter is being formally distributed on Thursday, which marks the 4/20 holiday.
While there will be plenty of events and campaigns celebrating cannabis culture that day, it’s also shaping up to be an occasion for serious policy discussions and calls for holistic reform.
For example, Schumer and several other congressional lawmakers will be speaking about marijuana policy issues at an event taking place inside the Capitol Building on Thursday.
Read the coalition’s letter to the president and officials on marijuana reform below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.