Biden administration moves to reclassify marijuana: A major shift in US drug policy

President Biden’s Department of Justice takes historic steps to reclassify marijuana, aiming to end a ‘failed approach’ and recognize its medical benefits, sparking mixed reactions from lawmakers and advocates.

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Image Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The Department of Justice has formally initiated the process to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III substance, marking a significant shift in U.S. drug policy. This move, announced by President Joe Biden on Thursday, aims to rectify decades of stringent regulation that placed marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD.

Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, indicating it is considered to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. The DOJ’s proposal, which has been submitted to the Federal Register, seeks to reclassify marijuana under Schedule III, alongside substances like testosterone and steroids. This reclassification acknowledges marijuana’s medical benefits and its relatively lower potential for abuse compared to Schedule I drugs.

The proposal has kicked off a 60-day public comment period, during which stakeholders can submit their views. Following this period, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is expected to review the feedback and issue a final order on the reclassification. Public hearings may also be held if requested by interested parties.

The Controlled Substances Act has long hindered scientific research into the medical benefits of marijuana. Since 1971, marijuana’s Schedule I classification has severely restricted federal funding for research, limiting our understanding of its therapeutic potential. The reclassification to Schedule III would ease these restrictions, allowing federal scientists to study the drug’s effects comprehensively for the first time in over 50 years.

Previous efforts to reclassify and decriminalize marijuana have gained momentum in recent years. Advocates have pointed to the growing body of evidence supporting marijuana’s medical use, as well as the widespread public support for legalization. This shift reflects a broader trend towards reforming U.S. drug policy to better align with contemporary scientific understanding and societal attitudes.

Democratic lawmakers have largely welcomed the DOJ’s proposal, seeing it as a critical step towards ending the criminalization of marijuana and addressing the social injustices associated with its prohibition. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised the move but urged further action towards full legalization. “Rescheduling marijuana is an important step, but we must continue to push for comprehensive legalization to rectify the harms caused by decades of misguided drug policy,” Schumer stated.

On the other hand, some Republican figures and critics have voiced concerns about the adequacy of scientific evidence supporting the reclassification. Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy adviser, argued that “politics, not science, is driving this decision.” He emphasized the need for more rigorous research to ensure that the reclassification does not lead to unintended consequences.

The announcement has elicited strong reactions from advocacy groups and the public. The U.S. Cannabis Council, a prominent trade group, hailed the decision as a “tectonic shift away from the failed policies of the last 50 years.” They highlighted the potential benefits for medical research and the cannabis industry, which has faced significant regulatory hurdles under the current classification.

However, some critics remain skeptical. They caution that rescheduling alone may not address all the issues related to marijuana prohibition, such as the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities and the need for broader criminal justice reform.

Reclassifying marijuana is expected to have a muted immediate impact on federal prosecutions for simple possession, which have already been relatively rare in recent years. Nonetheless, the move could significantly benefit the marijuana industry by reducing the tax burden on businesses and facilitating research. Currently, marijuana businesses face tax rates of up to 70% due to its Schedule I status, a burden that could be alleviated with reclassification.

Additionally, the change is likely to spur further state-level legalization efforts. With 38 states already allowing medical marijuana and 24 states legalizing recreational use, federal reclassification could harmonize state and federal regulations, fostering a more cohesive legal framework for the cannabis industry.

This reclassification is part of a broader trend towards modernizing U.S. drug policy. It reflects a growing recognition of the need to balance public health priorities with the benefits of medical marijuana. The move also underscores the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing historical inequities in drug enforcement and advancing social justice.

As President Biden stated in a video message, “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana, and I’m committed to righting those wrongs.”

“Today’s announcement builds on the work we’ve done to pardon a record number of federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana, and it adds to the action we’ve taken to lift barriers to housing, employment, small business loans, and so much more for tens of thousands of Americans.” 

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