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Congressman Challenges Biden Administration Officials To Provide Evidence For Positions On Marijuana Scheduling

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A Democratic congressman is circulating a sign-on letter challenging Biden Administration officials who are currently engaged in a review of marijuana’s scheduling status under the federal Controlled Substances Act to provide clear and compelling reasons for whatever decisions they reach.

“To ensure accountability in your conclusions—which has been absent in so much of the history of federal marijuana regulation— transparency is key,” the letter, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), says. “We urge you to make available for public review and comment any evidence cited to demonstrate marijuana is more prone to drug abuse than descheduled substances already regulated at the state level.”

The draft letter, circulated by Blumenauer’s office on Tuesday, is addressed to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra. It urges the administration to deschedule cannabis, removing it completely from the CSA and treating it more like other legal, regulated substances.

The congressman is currently seeking signatures from other lawmakers willing to sign on to the letter by next Tuesday.

“Please join me in urging the Biden-Harris administration to deschedule marijuana and ensure transparency in reflecting marijuana’s potential and the reality of the federal-state gap on cannabis policy,” says a separate message Blumenauer sent to colleagues about the sign-on letter. He noted that 37 states have already enacted medical marijuana laws and 21 allow for broader adult use.

“Following the lead of these states,” the note to other lawmakers says, “members from both parties have introduced legislation to fully legalize marijuana and help remedy the failed federal prohibition. The Democratic-led House has since twice passed legislation to deschedule marijuana. The Administration must also be a partner in the path forward.”

The draft letter to the federal cabinet members opens by referencing the administration’s review of cannabis scheduling, calling it “an opportunity to make honest assessment of the origins and implications of federal policy.”

“We know that marijuana was scheduled based on stigma not science,” the letter says. “It is time to address marijuana’s existing reality as a state-regulated legal substance.”

The letter, which includes Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf as a CC, was first reported by Politico.

A bipartisan group of 29 congressional lawmakers from both the House and Senate sent a letter to the president in December, asking that he formally back federal marijuana legalization as the administration carries out the cannabis scheduling review.

While the lawmakers didn’t request Biden take administrative action to unilaterally facilitate legalization, their request underscored an eagerness for the White House to play a more proactive role in advancing reform.

Becerra, who was cc’d on the letter, tweeted a link to a Marijuana Moment article that discussed the president’s cannabis-scheduling directive.

For his part, the HHS secretary said at an event last year that he planned to conduct the review with an eye toward science.

“We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us,” said Becerra, who as a congressman and as California’s attorney general had a considerable record supporting cannabis reform.

Like HHS, the U.S. Department of Justice has similarly committed to quickly carrying out a separate scheduling review at the direction of the president, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule than its current Schedule I status or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.

Biden also signed a marijuana research bill into law in December, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.

Earlier this week, at an event commemorating the end of Black History Month, the president touted his move to pardon people for federal, low-level marijuana possession offenses.

“I’m keeping my promise,” he said. “No one should be in prison for the mere possession of marijuana.”

The mass pardon covers people who have committed non-violent federal cannabis possession offenses at the federal level and under Washington, D.C. law. It did not free anyone who is currently incarcerated and excludes people who were convicted of selling cannabis, among other groups that advocates are seeking relief for.

A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.

Read the full draft letter to federal officials below:

Dear Secretary Becerra and Attorney General Garland:

The Biden-Harris Administration’s formal review of the scheduling of marijuana is an opportunity to make honest assessment of the origins and implications of federal policy. We know that marijuana was scheduled based on stigma not science. It is time to address marijuana’s existing reality as a state-regulated substance.

President Biden’s action on October 6, 2022 instructing the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice to review the scheduling of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act was a necessary and overdue addition to the history of marijuana scheduling review. From the Schafer Commission’s report Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (1972) to Justice Stevens’ note in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) to the 21 states with regulated adult use marketplaces and 37 states with medical marijuana programs, the substance is consistently recognized as inappropriately scheduled.

However, simply rescheduling marijuana would similarly fail to reflect marijuana’s existing reality as a state-regulated substance. The administrative review of marijuana’s scheduling should place the burden of evidence on maintaining marijuana’s status as a scheduled substance. To correct the failed war on drugs and cannabis prohibition, the assumption must be that, unless evidence undeniably indicates that marijuana is more prone to drug abuse than unscheduled substances already regulated at the state level, marijuana should be fully descheduled from the Controlled Substances Act.

Descheduling does not negate Congress’ obligation to act on comprehensive federal cannabis reform. With proposals for such reform introduced from members of both parties, we are actively working to address the federal-state gap on cannabis policy. Each of these proposals works to respect the leadership states have demonstrated for 50 years in rethinking the failed and discriminatory war on drugs approach to marijuana. Given the scope of the federal government’s failure on marijuana, the Administration must also take meaningful action to deschedule marijuana and partner with Congress and the states in the work ahead.

To ensure accountability in your conclusions — which has been absent in so much of the history of federal marijuana regulation — transparency is key. We urge you to make available for public review and comment any evidence cited to demonstrate marijuana is more prone to drug abuse than descheduled substances already regulated at the state level. With the severe federal restrictions on cannabis research due to marijuana’s scheduling, it’s important that your departments review the full scope of research available. It is time to set the federal government on a better path for marijuana policy and engage transparently with the evidence.

Marijuana does not belong as a scheduled substance. This is especially apparent given its medical potential, existing state regulatory frameworks, and reduced harm and abuse compared to stimulants and depressants already regulated outside of the Controlled Substances Act. As the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice expeditiously and intentionally conduct your reviews, we expect the Administration to proactively partner with Congress in the path forward.

[[CLOSING]]
[[SIGNATURES]]

CC: The Honorable Robert M. Califf, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration

White House Approval Sought For Changes To Marijuana Questions In Federal Hiring Process

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Seattle.

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