The news that the top U.S. health agency is recommending rescheduling marijuana is earning applause from congressional lawmakers across the aisle, including longstanding bipartisan champions of reform like Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), who are claiming partial credit for the development.
Numerous lawmakers have responded with enthusiasm after it was reported on Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that it believes cannabis should be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) following a scientific review directed by the president last year.
Those responses continue to pour in, with advocates and industry stakeholders now contemplating the broader implications of rescheduling. And some legislators want a piece of the credit for their years of advocacy.
“For many, many years now, I have been pushing for decisive action on marijuana,” Fetterman said in a statement on Thursday. “Nearly one year ago to the day, I met with President Biden in Pittsburgh and requested that he and his administration do something on marijuana policy.”
“Yesterday’s move is a massive win for the Biden administration and a strong step in the right direction on marijuana policy,” he said. “I’m glad to see that the administration agrees with what we have known for a while: marijuana should not be a Schedule I drug.”
Fetterman added a word of caution, however. He said, “we should also be clear that we have been in this exact spot before, with science on the side of rescheduling, only to have the DEA and its destructive ‘War on Drugs’ mindset block reform. That must not happen again.”
Joyce, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement shared with Marijuana Moment that he’s “pleased to see the Administration is acting on my request to re-examine cannabis’ antiquated Schedule I classification,” referencing a 2021 letter he sent President Joe Biden alongside the late former Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Don Young (R-AK).
“This is an important first step on a long road to correct the wrongs in the war on cannabis and prevent the rise of an ineffectively regulated and therefore harmful market,” the congressman said, adding that the administration should “take the next forward and partner with Congress” on legislation he’s sponsoring with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to prepare the government for federal legalization.
He also said that next steps for Congress should involve passing bipartisan marijuana banking and expungements legislation that he’s sponsoring.
“As I’ve noted many times before, we cannot stop at rescheduling and must pursue a full descheduling of cannabis,” Joyce said. “This remains up to Congress. I strongly encourage leaders on both sides of the aisle to respect the will of over 40 states and nearly 70 percent of the American electorate to work together to deschedule cannabis once and for all.”
Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN), also weighed in on the HHS rescheduling development, saying marijuana “should not be on the same schedule as heroin.” That’s notable given that the congressman previously criticized House Democrats for prioritizing cannabis reform ahead of a legalization vote in 2020.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), a longtime vocal supporter of marijuana legalization, also claimed some credit for the administration’s cannabis move.
“I told the DEA I’d call [HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra] about rescheduling marijuana, and I did,” he said. “Now HHS has recommended that the DEA reschedule cannabis from Schedule 1 down to 3. Thanks to Sec. Becerra for following through. Marijuana should never have been Schedule 1—DEA, let’s get it done.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) also commented on the rescheduling recommendation, arguing that spending “even 1 penny of federal tax dollars to criminalize cannabis is stupid.”
“Pleased to see [HHS] recommend that [DEA] remove cannabis from Schedule I. HHS recommends that cannabis be listed under Schedule III,” he said. “I urge DEA to remove cannabis from any Schedule.”
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) said on Thursday that she applauds HHS “for appropriately reclassifying marijuana.”
“While the work to end the failed War on Drugs is not over, this adjustment is a step forward in the right direction,” the congresswoman said.
Becerra, the health secretary, confirmed the news that his agency had sent its cannabis rescheduling recommendation to DEA in a post at exactly 4:20pm ET on Wednesday—one of the latest examples of the Biden cabinet official sharing marijuana news at the symbolic time.
“I can now share that, following the data and science, [HHS] has responded to [Biden’s] directive to me for the Department to provide a scheduling recommendation for marijuana to the DEA,” Becerra, who told Marijuana Moment in June that his agency planned to complete its work this year, said in the post. “We’ve worked to ensure that a scientific evaluation be completed and shared expeditiously.”
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While there’s significant excitement about the development, nothing is final about the scheduling decision. DEA said it “will now initiate its review” taking into account FDA’s findings, but it makes the final call and isn’t required to follow through on a Schedule III reclassification.
A White House spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that the “administrative process is an independent process led by HHS and DOJ and guided by the evidence,” so president’s team will not be commenting on the agency’s recommendation at this time.
Politically, moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III would allow the president to say that he’s helped accomplish a major reform, facilitating an administrative review that may result in rescheduling more than 50 years after cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category as the federal government launched a war on drugs.
This could also bolster momentum for congressional efforts to further reform federal cannabis laws, as Joyce suggested.
Of course, advocates’ highest hopes for the HHS review was that it would lead to a descheduling recommendation, where marijuana would be completely removed from the CSA and treated the same as alcohol in the eyes of the government. Some have also voiced concerns that a Schedule III reclassification could negatively impact state markets, with FDA potentially assuming a more hands-on role with respect to cannabis.
Meanwhile, last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pressed DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to expand on her recent remarks about the origin and timeline of the president’s marijuana scheduling review directive. Specifically, he’s asking for a copy of a letter that Milgram said the president sent to the attorney general and HHS secretary last year directing the review. He also wants an update on whether the administrator asked HHS about the timetable for their work, as she told him she’d do during a recent House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
As far as the alleged rescheduling letter from Biden is concerned, an attorney filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with HHS in an effort to obtain a copy of the letter. But earlier this month, the department said it had “no records” of such a document.
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