Top Federal Health Official Clarifies Rescheduling Marijuana Wouldn’t Decriminalize It—Which Biden Campaigned On

Top Federal Health Official Clarifies Rescheduling Marijuana Wouldn’t Decriminalize It—Which Biden Campaigned On

The Biden administration’t top health official has again defended his department’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana against Republican criticism, while pointing out that the incremental move would not decriminalize cannabis despite the president’s campaign pledges to do so.

During a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health And Human Services, Education, And Related Agencies on Wednesday, several members addressed the cannabis scheduling review, including two GOP members who oppose the reform and a Democrat who helped advance a legalization bill in 2020.

Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC) pressed Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra on the impact of a possible rescheduling action, questioning whether moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) would increase youth access and voicing concern about mental health implications of cannabis use.

Becerra corrected the lawmaker on the idea that rescheduling would decriminalize marijuana, clarifying that “it can still be a criminal violation depending on its use” under Schedule III. In effect, the secretary’s comments underscore that the modest reform would not accomplish the president’s campaign promise to decriminalize cannabis, though it would have other effects such as removing research barriers and freeing up state-licensed marijuana businesses to take federal tax deductions.

“I don’t know about your state, but in my state of California, and probably more than half of the states of the nation, marijuana is already somewhat available, whether for medical purposes or even for recreational purposes,” the secretary said. “What we’re talking about here is, though, the federal treatment of marijuana, of cannabis, because federal law treats cannabis differently than most states, and what the president asked us to do is examine where we are with cannabis.”

He then said he was unsure whether marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I or Schedule V controlled substance, and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) clarified that it is Schedule I. Becerra went on to say that meant cannabis is considered among “the most potent and dangerous type of narcotic.”

Edwards—who introduced legislation last year to slash federal funding from individual states and Indians tribes that legalize marijuana—cited research suggesting a link between cannabis use and certain mental health conditions and asked Becerra if he was aware of such studies.

“I’m aware of a number of reports and studies,” Becerra replied. “When I was the attorney general in California, we dealt with the issue of marijuana. And as the secretary, I’ve worked closely with the Food and Drug Administration, which is the agency charged with making a determination about the scheduling.”

“The various studies you’re probably referring to are the types of studies and reports that the Food and Drug Administration would have taken into consideration as it did as its assessment of cannabis,” he said.

The secretary similarly deferred to FDA on the science justifying its rescheduling recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week.

Edwards also said later in the House hearing that he doesn’t want to “get into the debate about marijuana and cigarettes right now, although I believe we need to be having some more conversation up here on this Hill about the harmful effects of marijuana and the states’ rights to circumvent federal law.”

Don Murphy, a cannabis lobbyist and former GOP Maryland legislator, told Marijuana Moment that the congressman’s remarks are “hypocritical.”

“North Carolina is the tobacco capital of the world,” he said. “As a representative of the state of North Carolina, Edwards is the epitome of hypocrisy.”

Following Edwards, Harris also commented on his concerns about cannabis rescheduling, saying HHS essentially with “both arms hugs this idea of reducing the scheduling” and reiterating that he worries such a move could put the U.S. in violation of international drug treaties—a point disputed by experts.

“Some people think we will be violating our international treaty agreements,” Harris said. “Now, given that this administration is all-in for a treaty agreement with the World Health Organization on pandemic things that would, you know, give up our rights as states in a free nation, I’m a little surprised that they, you know, want to have this beef with the World Health Organization on the Single Conventions. But I’ll leave it at that.”

In a recent letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, Harris separately said the agency should “abide by our nation’s international treaty obligations” and keep marijuana in Schedule I, while challenging the scientific review from FDA.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the former House majority leader, gave a contrasting perspective on the issue, telling Becerra that while he’s “never smoked” marijuana, he considers it less harmful than other currently regulated and unregulated substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and fentanyl.

“Where we find ourselves is in a contradictory situation between the states’ legalization and the federal government,” he said, adding that he also supports legislation addressing the “dangerous” situation the marijuana industry has found itself in with a lack of backing access.

The current system is “contradictory and confusing for the public and harmful for the the public as well,” Hoyer said.

While HHS’s recommendation was to reschedule marijuana, Vice President Kamala Harris recently told a group of marijuana pardon recipients that “we need to legalize marijuana,” signaling a messaging shift as the administration leans into the popularity of cannabis reform ahead of the November election.

In initial public remarks, the vice president called on DEA to reschedule cannabis “as quickly as possible.”

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