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Biden Makes Historic Marijuana Rescheduling Announcement, Applauding ‘Monumental’ Move To Reverse ‘Longstanding Inequities’



President Joe Biden has announced that his administration is officially moving to reschedule marijuana under federal law, applauding the “monumental” action that follows an extensive administrative review that he directed.

The Justice Department will soon post its proposed rule to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in the Federal Register, a senior administration official said on Thursday. There will then be a 60-day public comment period before the rule is potentially finalized.

“This is monumental,” Biden said in a video announcing the rescheduling news. “Today my administration took a major step to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug. It’s an important move towards reversing longstanding inequities.”

“Today’s announcement builds on the work we’ve already done to pardon a record number of federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana,” he said. “It adds to the action we’ve taken to lift barriers to housing, employment, small business loans, and so more for tens of thousands of Americans.”

“Look folks no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana. Period,” the president said, echoing a point he’s made repeatedly in recent months. “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

Vice President Kamala Harris, who recently called for federal legalization in a closed-door meeting with marijuana pardon recipients, said in a separate video on Thursday that, “currently marijuana is classified on the same level as heroin and more dangerous than fentanyl.”

“We are finally changing that. But I want to thank all of the advocates and everyone out there for helping to make this possible and we are on the road to getting it done,” she said.

The White House announcement comes about two weeks after the Justice Department confirmed that the Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] was moving to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III drug.

“President Biden has been clear: No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” an administration official said. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and education.”

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the Justice Department “proposes rescheduling marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III,” they said. “Marijuana is currently classified higher than fentanyl and meth—the drugs driving our Nation’s overdose epidemic.”

Shortly after the president’s announcement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre touted the rescheduling move at a press briefing.

“As President Biden said during his campaign, no one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana,” she said, calling the Schedule III move a “major step.”

The reform “will remove burdensome, long standing barriers to critical research,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that it “builds on” the mass marijuana pardons the president has issued.

“The reality is while white, Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates,” the press secretary said. “The president’s actions today further his commitment to reverse longstanding injustices and to right historic wrongs.”

The public comment period that will soon open is expected to receive historic attention given widespread public support for broad legalization and competing perspectives about the appropriateness of a Schedule III designation.

On the one hand, many advocates have welcomed the rescheduling determination, given that it represents the first time in over 50 years that the federal government has recognized the medical value and relatively low abuse potential of a plant that’s been legalized in some form in the vast majority of states.

On the other hand, activists have emphasized that rescheduling does not federally legalize marijuana or provide corrective relief to people who’ve been criminalized over it. And, of course, prohibitionists have urged DEA to keep marijuana in Schedule I and are expected to litigate if the agency moves forward with the incremental reform.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram has also acknowledged the possibility of an administrative hearing to gain further input on the decision before its finalized.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has also weighed in on the rescheduling development, saying in a report that while it was “likely” that DEA would enact the policy change, that would not bring state markets into compliance with federal law. It added that Congress still has the authority to address the federal-state cannabis policy gap “before or after” that reform is enacted.

To that end, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues have reintroduced legislation to federally legalize cannabis and impose certain regulations. The bill’s prospects are dubious in the current divided Congress, however.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat in the U.S. House said that the Biden administration’s move to reschedule marijuana is a “step in the right direction,” but it should be followed up with congressional action such as passing the legalization bill Schumer filed.

In a recent interview with Fox News, former DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said it “absolutely looks like” the agency will follow through with moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA.

The White House previously declined to say whether President Joe Biden personally supported the Justice Department’s plan to reschedule marijuana following the review that he directed.

Jean-Pierre has repeatedly avoided commenting directing on the administration’s position on the specific rescheduling proposal ahead of Thursday’s announcement. However, she said recently that the review the president directed is part of fulfilling the pledge he made to voters in the 2020 election.

Biden has issued two rounds of mass pardons for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses. A Schedule III reclassification would not legalize cannabis or free people still incarcerated over cannabis.

It should also be noted that, during his run for the presidency, Biden pledged to move cannabis to Schedule II—a stricter category compared to what’s been proposed by his administration.

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