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U.S. Senator And Congressman Urge Feds To Fully Legalize Marijuana, Rather Than Reschedule It



New York congressional, state and local lawmakers are teaming up to rally for the complete descheduling of marijuana, pushing the attorney general and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to end prohibition, rather than simply reschedule cannabis.

As DEA considers a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommendation to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) held a press conference alongside advocates, New York state lawmakers and New York City officials on Sunday to promote broader administrative reform.

“I think it’s clear: It’s time to legalize marijuana and expunge non-violent marijuana convictions,” Gillibrand said. “It’s time to make sure that jobs and the economic benefit resulting from legalization lift up the Black and brown communities most harmed by the failed war on drugs. And it’s time to give scientists and policymakers the freedom and data they need to make more informed decisions about the drug’s regulation.”

“This week, I’m calling on the attorney general and the Drug Enforcement Administration to swiftly deschedule marijuana the Controlled Substances Act,” she added. “The drug does not meet the medical or scientific requirements for a Schedule I substance and its classification as such is woefully out of step with reality. The vast majority of Americans agree that marijuana should be legalized.”

“I will keep working with my colleagues in Congress to advocate for this issue,” Gillibrand said. “And I will do everything in my power to end the overly restrictive federal marijuana policy.”

Nadler, the sponsor of a bill to federally legalize marijuana that’s passed the House twice in recent sessions, said that, “for many years, this country has waged a failed war on drugs, including the criminalization of marijuana, that has inflicted untold suffering on millions of Americans.”

“Marijuana never should have been placed on the most restrictive schedule of the Controlled Substances Act—alongside substances such as heroin and cocaine,” he said. “I appreciate the Biden administration’s decision to review the status of marijuana, and I strongly urge the administration to deschedule it completely. It is time to end the prohibition and criminalization of marijuana at the federal level.”

The prospects of descheduling under the ongoing review seem unlikely, as DEA has historically resisted calls to loosen cannabis restrictions by simply rescheduling it. It’s an open question whether the agency will heed the HHS recommendation to move it to Schedule III.

Nadler also told a reporter following Sunday’s press conference that the Biden administration “can deschedule it without legislation,” and he’s “hopeful that now that they’ve come part of the way that we can persuade them to go the rest of the way.”

However, while President Joe Biden directed the scheduling review and campaigned on a yet-unfulfilled pledge to federally decriminalize cannabis, the White House has previously affirmed that he remains personally opposed to legalizing it.

New York Sen. Liz Krueger (D), who championed the state’s marijuana legalization law that’s being implemented, said “we have demonstrated that it is possible to legalize adult-use cannabis without the sky falling.”

At Sunday’s briefing, Sen. Cordell Cleare (D) said that “as we combat everything, including racism, we have to be constantly ringing the bell.”

“Your presence here today is saying something,” she said. “It’s doing something. And we have to continue to organize that voice.”

Advocates with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Empire State NORML also joined the lawmakers in their push for descheduling.

“We all deserve marijuana laws rooted in equity, health, safety, and dignity,” DPA said in a statement. “As a country we have made progress toward addressing the racist, hideous legacy of marijuana criminalization, and the lifelong collateral consequences caused for many of our loved ones. However, as long as marijuana remains on the Controlled Substances Act, the harms of federal marijuana criminalization will persist.”

Congressional researchers also recently laid out the limitations of simple rescheduling— emphasizing that state cannabis markets would continue to run afoul of federal law, and existing criminal penalties for certain marijuana-related activity would remain in force.

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DEA has faced pressure on both sides of the marijuana policy debate over recent months, with advocates pressing for a Schedule III decision, or complete descheduling, and prohibitionists urging the agency to keep cannabis in Schedule I.

Prior to the HHS documents’ release, 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 last month, 29 former U.S. attorneys called on the Biden administration to leave cannabis in Schedule I.

Last 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.

In October, Advocates and lawmakers who support cannabis reform marked the one-year anniversary of Biden’s mass marijuana pardon and scheduling directive this month by calling on him to do more—including by expanding the scope of relief that his pardon had and by expressly supporting federal legalization.

Two GOP senators, including the lead Republican sponsor of a marijuana banking bill that cleared a key committee in September, also filed legislation late last year to prevent federal agencies from rescheduling cannabis without tacit approval from Congress.

A coalition of 14 Republican congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, has 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.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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