The Hill: Democratic senators call on DEA to deschedule marijuana entirely

By Joseph Choi

A group of Democratic senators called on the Biden administration Tuesday to completely deschedule marijuana, arguing the White House’s recommendations to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reschedule the drug do not go far enough to address the harm that has occurred from the current system.

In a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, 11 Democratic senators, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), argued the administration “should deschedule marijuana altogether.”

“Marijuana’s placement in the [Controlled Substances Act] has had a devastating impact on our communities and is increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), John Fetterman (Pa.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Peter Welch (Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.).

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent recommendations to the DEA to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I — the category designated to drugs with no accepted medical use and a high risk of abuse — to Schedule III.

The DEA is conducting a review of marijuana scheduling.

The lawmakers cited recently disclosed documents in which the HHS acknowledged marijuana likely does not meet the criteria to be considered Schedule I. They also pointed out that nearly half of the states in the U.S. have legalized recreational marijuana use since the last time the drug’s scheduling was considered in 2016.

International bodies — such as the World Health Organization — physician groups in the U.S., and public opinion all support marijuana legalization to some extent, the senators noted.

“The case for removing marijuana from Schedule I is overwhelming. The DEA should do so by removing cannabis from the [Controlled Substances Act] altogether, rather than simply placing it in a lower schedule,” they wrote.

“Although HHS recommended rescheduling, its analysis could support a decision to deschedule — particularly its emphasis on the fact that marijuana has less adverse outcomes (including less potential of an overdose) and less potential of abuse than substances that are descheduled (alcohol) or scheduled below Schedule III (such as benzodiazepines),” the letter continued.

Rescheduling marijuana is not the same as decriminalizing it, something President Biden promised to do once in office. Proponents of marijuana legalization have criticized a potential rescheduling as a move that would more so benefit marijuana business owners — most of whom are white — in being able to deduct business expenses from their taxes, rather than helping rectify racial injustices fueled by marijuana’s scheduling.

“These harms could be remedied only through fully descheduling marijuana. Once descheduled, marijuana can still be subject to public health regulations, drawing from lessons learned through the regulation of alcohol and tobacco,” the senators said in their letter.

The lawmakers requested the DEA respond to questions regarding where the current review of rescheduling stands, what evidence the agency is using, what the timeline looks like, how criminal enforcement would change after a potential rescheduling and whether the agency is taking into account the harms of marijuana criminalization.

The DEA and the office of the attorney general did not immediately respond when reached for comment.

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