Democrats urge Biden administration to deschedule marijuana

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are putting new pressure on the Biden administration to ease federal restrictions on marijuana in a new letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday as it considers rescheduling cannabis after it was federally classified more than five decades ago.

The Department of Health and Human Services formally recommended in August that the DEA move the drug from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, prompting a monthslong review, which continues.

The letter, from 12 senators led by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and John Fetterman, D-Pa., and signed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., goes further.

“The case for removing marijuana from Schedule I is overwhelming. The DEA should do so by removing cannabis from the CSA altogether, rather than simply placing it in a lower schedule,” the senators wrote in the letter, first obtained by NBC News.

Rescheduling the drug or removing it entirely would have significant implications for the marijuana industry and for cannabis users, some of whom consume it for medical purposes.

Since 1971, cannabis has been under Schedule I, the highest classification of the CSA, along with drugs like heroin and LSD, which the government formally considers to have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

Even so, 40 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized some form of cannabis, for either recreational or medical use, leaving consumers and business owners to operate in a patchwork of changing laws across the country.

The DEA told lawmakers this month that despite the historic recommendation by the Department of Health and Human Services over the summer, it “has the final authority to schedule, reschedule, or deschedule a drug under the Controlled Substances Act” based on scientific and medical evaluation.

The White House had hoped to make a rescheduling announcement close to the one-year mark since President Joe Biden ordered the DEA to review HHS’ recommendation in October 2022 and to use it as a campaign issue at the ballot box in November, according to five sources with knowledge of the situation.

Senate Democrats argued in Tuesday’s letter that the Biden administration should “promptly” remove the drug from Schedule I before it ultimately deschedules it.

“The Biden Administration has a window of opportunity to deschedule marijuana that has not existed in decades and should reach the right conclusion — consistent with the clear scientific and public health rationale for removing marijuana from Schedule I, and with the imperative to relieve the burden of current federal marijuana policy on ordinary people and small businesses,” they wrote.

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In addition to Warren, Fetterman and Schumer, the letter was signed by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who both worked with Schumer to put forward a comprehensive marijuana reform proposal that would end federal prohibition and decriminalize cannabis, legislation that has not gained the necessary support across the aisle.

A similar piece of legislation that would have legalized marijuana nationwide passed in the Democratic-controlled House in 2022, largely along party lines.

Another bill, known as the SAFE Banking Act, would make it easier for financial institutions to offer banking services to cannabis companies in states where the drug is legal and there is bipartisan support for getting the legislation across the finish line. After the bill passed through committee in the fall, Schumer said passing it through the Senate would be a top legislative priority, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.

Meanwhile, Biden has used executive authority to pardon thousands of people convicted of use and simple possession of marijuana, most recently in December.

A national poll commissioned by the Coalition for Cannabis Scheduling Reform, released in December, found that an overwhelming majority of 18- to 25-year-old likely voters — 65% — expressed support for Biden’s efforts to reschedule cannabis, another sign that the issue could help him politically in a tough re-election bid.

Seventy percent of Americans support federal marijuana legalization, the highest percentage ever, according to a recent Gallup poll.

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