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Top Biden Health Official Defends Marijuana Rescheduling Recommendation Against Criticism From GOP Senator



The Biden administration’s top health official is defending his department’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana against criticism from a Republican senator, noting that many states have “moved much farther than the federal government” on cannabis.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) pressed Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra on the agency’s recommendation that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Cornyn inquired about the parameters of the scientific review into cannabis that was directed by President Joe Biden and carried out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under HHS, suggesting that it wasn’t adequately comprehensive and involved a change in process from past scheduling analyses.

“There has been a lot of science that’s been collected over the years on cannabis. We have far more information now,” Becerra replied, citing the 252-page analysis that HHS provided DEA to support its rescheduling recommendation.

“As you know, throughout the country, many states have moved much farther than the federal government has. Even in places like Texas, you see where action has been taken on cannabis,” he said, referring to that state’s limited medical marijuana program. “What we’re doing is simply reflecting what the science is showing.”

Now it’s up to DEA to make the final determination. Cannabis lobbyist Don Murphy asked Becerra after the hearing whether he had a sense of timing for the agency’s decision, but the health official replied that “you need to go to the DEA and ask.”

“Knock on their door,” the secretary said.

During the hearing, Cornyn also asked why the review looked at marijuana’s abuse potential compared to heroin but not certain other Schedule I drugs.

Becerra said he wanted to avoid speaking for FDA given that the agency’s scientists conducted the review “independently” of HHS leadership, but he stressed that “the rigorous work that was done to come to these conclusions was based on the science and the evidence they had before them.”

Cornyn also questioned whether the review examined health impacts of marijuana use on adolescent brains and pregnant women—echoing specific talking points that have been circulated by the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) to criticize the HHS recommendation.

“I’m sure they took into consideration all the information out there on both the effects and the evidence that there is on cannabis use,” the secretary said of the officials who conducted the review. “I’m sure that FDA would have taken into account all the different circumstances involved. I didn’t make the recommendation. It was made by FDA.”

In January, Becerra also said 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.

DEA retains final authority over the scheduling matter, and it’s currently unclear when the agency will announce its decision.

Certain DEA officials are reportedly resisting the Biden administration’s rescheduling push, disputing the HHS findings on marijuana’s safety profile and medical potential, according to unnamed sources who spoke with The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, in addition to directing the scheduling review, Biden has also issued two rounds of pardons to people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, which he recently touted during his State of the Union address.

On Thursday, a coalition of 36 members of Congress called on Biden to go further by granting clemency to all Americans currently in federal prison over non-violent cannabis convictions by commuting their sentences, pointing out that the pardons he’s issued to date for simple possession cases did not release a single person from incarceration.

The letter also comes one day before Vice President Kamala Harris is set to meet with cannabis pardon recipients at the White House to discuss their experiences under the president’s clemency proclamations.

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