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Congresswoman Says Marijuana Rescheduling Could Set Full Federal Legalization Back ‘Another 50 Years’



Rescheduling marijuana could set the country back “another 50 years” on the path to federal legalization, a Democratic lawmaker who leads the Congressional Cannabis Caucus says.

At a National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) summit in Sacramento on Thursday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment that she’s “opposed” to moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

“Because sometimes you take an incremental step such as this, which took us years and years and years to get through, it will take another 50 years to get to legalization,” the congresswoman said.

Lee said that while she hasn’t heard anything directly about whether DEA will accept the Schedule III recommendation, “I assume that they are and I’m getting ready.”

Many of the congresswoman’s colleagues, including fellow Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), have insisted that DEA should fully remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), rather that simply reschedule it. But Lee is taking it a step further by explicitly opposing the incremental reform of rescheduling.

During a panel at the NCIA event on Thursday, Lee also stressed that, even if the government does move to initiate rulemaking to reschedule marijuana, advocates and stakeholders shouldn’t give up the fight.

“We still have a chance once these regulations are promulgated,” she said. “Once they come out, there will be a comment period. This is where I hope you all weigh in, because comment periods allow for interested parties, the industry, the public, to send their comments and weigh in.”

“The more realistic, practical and important input from the industry and from you all that gets to HHS, the better shape we’ll be in,” Lee said. “Even if they move forward still, we’ll be on record saying no.”

She was also asked broadly for her take on why reform has proved so difficult to advance in Congress despite bipartisan public support, and she blamed “political dynamics.”

“Of course, it’s about elections and it’s about trying to make sure that the president is not successful, nor the House Democrats or the Senate Democrats,” she said. “Rather than doing the people’s business, which is what we were elected to do, it’s just all about trying to stop President Biden from winning reelection.”

Lee was joined by California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) Director Nicole Elliott for the panel discussion, and the top state regulator made the point that, when the federal government does eventually enact legalization, it should take lessons from state regulatory models.

“If the federal government is going to create a baseline, also acknowledge that there is a state framework that has brought in operators, that is working closely with regulators, and use that to the benefit of the broader exercise,” Elliott said. “Leverage those state frameworks, the state regulators, in a way that’s helpful to the common goal. That would the most critical thing.”

Meanwhile, the congresswoman also told Marijuana Moment after the panel that the president’s pardon proclamations for federal marijuana possession offenses should be “extended all the way out, and any unintended or intended consequences of the war on drugs should be dealt with to repair the damage.”

On the rescheduling issue, the Biden administration was recently pressed to move marijuana to Schedule III by two coalitions representing military veterans and law enforcement—including a group that counts DEA Administrator Anne Milgram among its members.

Blumenauer, the founding Cannabis Caucus co-chair, has also urged DEA to release more information about its own ongoing review, including what its “planned deadline” is for finishing and whether it will take into account the fact that many states have already legalized cannabis.

The correspondence came in response to a recent assertion from DEA that it has “final authority” on the rescheduling decision—which itself was a reply to a separate letter from Blumenauer and 30 other bipartisan lawmakers, including Lee.

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On the other side of the issue, a Republican congressman who has long opposed marijuana reform claimed in a letter to DEA that FDA came to a “misguided conclusion” to recommend rescheduling cannabis, challenging the health agency’s scientific standards and imploring DEA to dismiss them as it prepares to make a final determination.

A separate letter sent to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram last month—led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and John Fetterman (D-PA), along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other champions of marijuana reform—urged DEA to go further than rescheduling by fully removing cannabis from the CSA.

Meanwhile, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said last month that his agency has “communicated” its “position” on marijuana rescheduling to DEA and has continued to offer additional information to assist with the final determination.

Prior to HHS releasing a trove of documents concerning its cannabis recommendation, a coalition of 12 Democratic state attorneys general implored DEA to move forward with federal marijuana rescheduling, calling the policy change a “public safety imperative.”

In another letter in December, 29 former U.S. attorneys called on the Biden administration to leave cannabis in Schedule I.

Also that month, the governors of six U.S. states—Colorado, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Louisiana—sent a letter to Biden calling on the administration to reschedule marijuana by the end of last year.

Meanwhile, six former DEA heads and five former White House drug czars sent a letter to the attorney general and current DEA administrator voicing opposition to the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana. They also made a questionable claim about the relationship between drug schedules and criminal penalties in a way that could exaggerate the potential impact of the incremental reform.

Signatories include DEA and Office of National Drug Control Policy heads under multiple administrations led by presidents of both major parties.

A coalition of 14 Republican congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, separately urged DEA to “reject” the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana and instead keep it in the most restrictive category under the CSA.

A recent poll found that about one-third of marijuana consumers say they would go back to the illicit market if cannabis was rescheduled and only made legally available as an FDA-approved prescription drug.

Another recent survey found that President Joe Biden stands to make significant political gains if marijuana is rescheduled under his administrative directive. Of course, Biden doesn’t directly control the final outcome.

The president has routinely touted his 2022 scheduling directive, as well as a mass pardon he granted for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses. He followed up on that action in December with a renewed and expanded pardon proclamation. The Justice Department has already begun issuing certifications for people who applied under the second round.

Vice President Kamala Harris’s office has been reaching out to people who’ve received a cannabis pardon—seeking assurance that the Justice Department certification process is going smoothly and engaging in broader discussions about cannabis policy reform, according to a pardon recipient who was contacted.

Separately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently highlighted its scientific review into marijuana that led the agency to recommend rescheduling—a process that involved a comprehensive analysis of research, as well looking at hundreds of posts on social media platforms to see how consumers described cannabis’s therapeutic impact.

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