Department of Justice Moves to Reclassify Marijuana as Less Dangerous Drug

The Justice Department has taken a significant step towards rescheduling marijuana, initiating the formal process to reclassify the drug as lower-risk and remove it from a category that treated it as more dangerous than fentanyl and methamphetamine.

President Joe Biden announced this “major” move Thursday in a direct-to-camera video posted to his official X account. “This is monumental,” Biden declared. “It’s an important move towards reversing long-standing inequities. … Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana, and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

The Biden administration has been signaling that it would move to reschedule the drug from Schedule I—a strict classification including drugs like heroin—to the less stringent Schedule III. This change would, for the first time, acknowledge the drug’s medical benefits at the federal level. On Thursday afternoon, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) submitted a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, triggering a 60-day comment period allowing the public to submit remarks regarding the rescheduling proposal.

Biden first directed federal agencies to review how marijuana is scheduled in October 2022, weeks before the midterm elections. The review process was led by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“Look folks, no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana. Period,” Biden reiterated in Thursday’s video, his third extensive discussion on the topic since his directive two years ago. He also addressed the issue during this year’s State of the Union address, marking history by referring to marijuana from the dais in the House chamber.

Vice President Kamala Harris also released a video on Thursday, praising the progress. “Currently marijuana is classified on the same level as heroin and more dangerous than fentanyl. We are finally changing that,” Harris said. “We are on the road to getting it done.”

During the first 30 days of the comment period, interested parties can request a hearing regarding the rescheduling proposal. Under the statute, the DEA would be required to hold a hearing before an administrative law judge. After reviewing public comments and any hearing, the DEA will issue a final order to reschedule marijuana, a process that could take a few months to up to a year.

Once completed, federal scientists will be able to research and study the potential medical benefits of marijuana for the first time since the Controlled Substances Act was enacted in 1971. It could also open the door for pharmaceutical companies to get involved with the sale and distribution of medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

For the $34 billion cannabis industry, this move would eliminate significant tax burdens for businesses in states where the drug is legal, notably removing it from the IRS code’s Section 280E, which prohibits legal cannabis companies from deducting ordinary business expenses.

The Justice Department’s decision could also help shrink the black market, which has thrived despite legalization in states like New York and California, and has undercut legal markets, which are fiercely regulated and highly taxed.

Dr. Kevin Sabet, President of the anti-marijuana legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, criticized the decision. “It’s become undeniable that politics, not science, is driving this decision and has been since the very beginning. This decision won’t legalize marijuana, and it won’t release anyone from prison or jail,” Sabet said. “This is setting the stage to create the Big Tobacco of our time.”

During his time in office, Biden issued pardons for prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana and issued a proclamation granting additional pardons for simple possession, attempted simple possession, and use of the drug. Democrats in Congress are pursuing efforts to remove cannabis entirely from the Controlled Substances Act, empowering states to create their own cannabis laws and prioritize restorative and economic justice for those affected by the “war on drugs.”

“Congress must do everything we can to end the federal prohibition on cannabis and address long-standing harms caused by the War on Drugs,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) earlier this month.

The move to reschedule marijuana marks a pivotal moment in drug policy reform, aiming to correct historical injustices and pave the way for broader acceptance of the drug’s medical benefits.

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