The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) won’t commit to completing a scientific review into marijuana’s federal scheduling status by the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—but he did say that the process will take into account shifts in what the drug “means” to Americans over the last several decades.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra discussed his agency’s role in an ongoing cannabis scheduling review that the president directed last year during an interview with KDKA-TV that aired on Monday.
The question on the minds of many advocates is just 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 the new interview 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.
As he’s done before, Becerra emphasized that the department’s review will be based on “science” and “safety for Americans.” But he also notably added that the assessment will take into account “whether or not we can show that there has been a change since the early 1990s in what cannabis means to America.”
That part of the review should prove relatively simple given that 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.
It’s not clear how much weight those datapoints will have in what kind of scheduling recommendation HHS provides to the Justice Department following its review, but it’s interesting nonetheless that the agency seems to be factoring in those dynamics, according to Becerra’s latest comments.
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.