President Joe Biden has been “very clear” that he’s “always supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes,” the White House is saying amid a federal cannabis scheduling review.
During a briefing on Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about the potential impact of moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“I don’t want to get ahead of the process. I was asked this question before,” Jean-Pierre said. “So just so that everybody is clear: The president asked the secretary of HHS and also the attorney general to initiate the administrative process to review how marijuana is scheduled, as you just kind of laid out.”
“The administration’s process is an independent process—I want to be very clear on that—that is led by HHS and DOJ. It is going to be very much guided by evidence,” she said. “I’m not going to comment on that. I want to be also clear on that piece. So I would refer you all to HHS.”
But the press secretary went on to reiterate that the president does back federal marijuana reform, specifically as it concerns medical cannabis, offering insight into the administration’s thinking as DEA takes over the review into the drug’s scheduling status.
“As we speak to legalization and the legal piece of it, as you’re asking me in your—in part of your question—so, look, the president has always supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes,” she said. “He’s been very clear about that, where appropriate, consistent with medical and scientific evidence. That is why it is important for this review—this independent review that is going to be, again, guided by evidence—to go through.”
“And so, I’m just not going to get ahead of what HHS is going to—the decision that they’ve made or get ahead of eventually what the DOJ is going to move forward with,” Jean-Pierre said.
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.
In any case, if DEA goes along with HHS’s Schedule III recommendation, that would represent a major shift in federal marijuana policy, with an acknowledgement that cannabis is not a drug of high abuse potential and no medical utility. But it would not sanction current state-level medical cannabis programs. It would, however, 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, though 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.
While there’s significant excitement about the development, nothing is final about the scheduling decision. DEA said in a statement to Marijuana Moment last week that it “will now initiate its review” taking into account the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) findings, but it makes the final call and isn’t required to follow through on a Schedule III reclassification.
A White House spokesperson echoed earlier comments by the press secretary last week, telling Marijuana Moment that the “administrative process is an independent process led by HHS and DOJ and guided by the evidence,” so president’s team will not be commenting on the agency’s recommendation at this time.
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 cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category as the federal government launched a war on drugs. That said, it would not represent fulfillment of his campaign pledge to decriminalize marijuana.
The incremental reform, meanwhile, could also bolster momentum for congressional efforts to further change federal cannabis laws, like a marijuana banking reform bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) listed among his legislative priorities for the remainder of the year in a Dear Colleague letter on Friday.
Meanwhile, last month, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pressed DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to expand on her recent remarks about the origin and timeline of the president’s marijuana scheduling review directive. Specifically, he’s asking for a copy of a letter that Milgram said the president sent to the attorney general and HHS secretary last year directing the review. He also wants an update on whether the administrator asked HHS about the timetable for their work, as she told him she’d do during a recent House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
As far as the alleged rescheduling letter from Biden is concerned, an attorney filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with HHS in an effort to obtain a copy of the letter. But last month, the department said it had “no records” of such a document.