A Republican congressman says he’s concerned that if the federal government doesn’t “go further” than simply moving marijuana to a lower drug schedule—as the top health agency has recommended—large pharmaceutical companies might be able to overtake the cannabis industry.
On Monday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) filled in for a Newsmax host and led a segment that featured attorney John Morgan, who spent millions to put a successful medical cannabis initiative on the ballot in Florida. The two discussed recent reporting that the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) is advising the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Morgan criticized the status quo that currently lists marijuana in the same schedule as drugs like heroin, and he accused the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries of wanting to block research into cannabis because such studies could support the idea of substituting marijuana for the more dangerous drugs that they market.
“Well, I totally concur with the assessment that marijuana reform is often blocked by Big Pharma because they want the opportunity to control it,” Gaetz, who also pressed the DEA administrator on the status of the scheduling review last month, said. “My concern is that if we don’t go any further than moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, that could potentially allow Big Pharma to control it.”
The congressman also suggested that the Biden administration may have been moved to recommend rescheduling after seeing research showing that legalization is associated with reduced opioid-related hospitalizations and lower rates of child foster case cases due to substance misuse. And he then asked Morgan if he felt the HHS Schedule III recommendation is “sufficient.”
Despite certain concerns about a potential power grab by the pharmaceutical industry if marijuana is rescheduled, Morgan said that it represents “a step in the right direction,” echoing recent remarks made my numerous congressional lawmakers who back marijuana reform. “It has to happen,” he said.
The idea that reclassifying cannabis could inadvertently disrupt state cannabis programs isn’t new. Some advocates have long argued that a modest rescheduling action could lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a hands-on regulatory approach to cannabis and embolden DEA to crack down on state marijuana markets. But neither agency has signaled that’s the plan, and predictions about the potential enforcement implications of a Schedule III designation run the gamut, as this would be unchartered policy territory.
A former top FDA official who chaired the agency’s Marijuana Working Group and predicted that HHS would make a Schedule III recommendation recently said that he doesn’t believe that reclassification would cause FDA to approach marijuana any differently than it does today.
Acknowledging that many industry stakeholders and advocates would rather see complete descheduling, the former FDA official, Howard Sklamberg, pointed out that the agency and the Justice Department have taken a hands-off approach to the legalization movement while cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug. It “defies logic” to think the agencies would suddenly enforce criminalization if it’s moved to a less restrictive category, he argued.
At this stage, nothing is final about the scheduling decision. DEA said in a statement to Marijuana Moment last month that it “will now initiate its review” taking into account FDA’s scientific findings, but it makes the final call and isn’t required to follow through on a Schedule III reclassification.
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On Friday, the White House press secretary said that President Joe Biden has been “very clear” that he’s “always supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes” when asked about the rescheduling recommendation.
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 last week.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.