The federal government is “hopelessly out of step” with the American public on marijuana legalization, a congressman said on Tuesday, addressing the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
At a hearing before the House Ways & Means Committee, Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra that “the American public overwhelmingly supports” ending cannabis prohibition, pointing to the fact that a majority of states have legalized marijuana in some form over the past several decades.
“I welcome the president’s call to do a reappraisal of how we characterize this so we can have the federal government catch up with where the American people are as it deals with the reality of cannabis, and I look forward to working with you,” Blumenauer said.
The congressman’s comments seemed responsive to recent recent remarks the secretary made concerning an ongoing administrative review into marijuana scheduling.
Becerra didn’t directly address Blumenauer’s remarks during Tuesday’s hearing amid other unrelated issues that the congressman also raised, but the health officials said in an interview last week that his department will be taking into account shifts in what marijuana “means” to Americans over the last several decades as part of the cannabis review.
As Blumenauer noted at Tuesday’s hearing, there weren’t any states where marijuana was legal for any purposes until 1996, and now there are 37 states with medical cannabis programs and 21 where it’s also legal for adult use.
Also, polling shows that support for ending cannabis prohibition altogether hovered around 20-30 percent in the early 1990s, whereas now almost seven in ten Americans back full legalization.
The congressman presented a poster at the hearing, which the secretary briefly acknowledged, that underscored those shifts in state laws and public opinion.
Becerra said last week that he’s aware that there’s significant public interest in the timeline for the administrative review—but there are “a few hoops we need to jump through” before completing that assessment.
Many advocates and industry stakeholders have raised questions about how long it will take the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under HHS to complete its part of the review process. Several Biden administration officials have used the word “expeditiously,” but they’ve declined to provide a specific timeline.
Asked in an interview this month whether HHS would make its decision by April 20, Becerra laughed and said simply, “I know we’re going to try to move quickly.”
“It’s got to go through a number of hoops and, again, safety and efficacy are what will drive this determination, so stay tuned,” the secretary, who has been known to play into the symbolism of 420 on Twitter, said.
An HHS representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday that the agency was working to respond to a request for clarification on the secretary’s recent comments on the cannabis review.
As the secretary said in a letter to the Congressional Cannabis Caucus earlier this month, the final decision on marijuana scheduling is left to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The official’s letter echoed a key point that FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock made in October, shortly after President Joe Biden issued the directive, as well as a mass pardon for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses.
That is, FDA under HHS will conduct the review—and the findings from that review are “binding,” but only insofar as the science is concerned. Because scheduling decisions are covered by the Controlled Substances Act, however, DEA makes the final call. And DEA could ultimately decide to keep marijuana is Schedule I.
FDA’s Woodcock similarly said that DEA “has the final word” on any potential scheduling decision following their review.
More than a dozen bipartisan congressional lawmakers sent a letter Becerra and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland this month, demanding transparency in the cannabis scheduling review.
The letter said that Biden’s scheduling directive represents “an opportunity to make honest assessment of the origins and implications of federal policy,” adding that “marijuana was scheduled based on stigma not science,” and it’s “time to address marijuana’s existing reality as a state-regulated substance.”
Separately, Garland said at a Senate hearing this month that DOJ is “still working on a marijuana policy” while awaiting the results of the scientific review from health agencies.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.