Policymakers appear to be fed up with the Biden administration’s failure to move the dial on marijuana reform. Now leaders are calling on the president to take action. A coalition of senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to follow through on his campaign promises to decriminalize cannabis and free federal marijuana prisoners, and former cannabis regulators are calling on the administration to reinstate protections for state medical cannabis programs.
Senators Speak Out
Last week Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sent a letter to Biden, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting that Garland remove cannabis from the list of scheduled substances and Biden grant mass clemency to all non-violent federal cannabis prisoners.
The letter mentions an earlier communication sent by the senators in October 2021 that requested cannabis be removed from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by the Department of Justice (DOJ). “On April 13, the DOJ responded to our October 6 request for the Administration to begin the descheduling process for cannabis,” wrote the senators. “The half-page response, which took over six months, was extraordinarily disappointing.”
According to the senators, the Justice Department responded that it couldn’t change cannabis’ status because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has determined that “cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition.”
But as the senators point out, there is plenty of scientific evidence that cannabis has medical uses, and the DOJ is not beholden to the HHS in this matter. According to the letter, if the HHS secretary recommends that a drug be descheduled, the Attorney General is required to comply. However, if the secretary recommends to leave a drug scheduled, the attorney general is able to move forward with descheduling anyway.
“Put simply,” wrote the senators, “the DOJ need not wait on any HHS determination to begin this process.”
The letter goes on to say that two-thirds of the American people are in favor of legalizing cannabis and removing the drug from the nation’s list of banned substances before the senators turn their attention to President Biden.
The senators note that they sent a letter to Biden in November 2021 requesting that the president “pardon all individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated.” Biden reportedly failed to respond to the letter in any way.
The letter commends Biden for his recent decision to pardon and commute the sentences of nine cannabis-related offenders. “However, much more has to be done to address the racist and harmful legacy of cannabis policies on Black and Brown communities,” the senators wrote. “The legacy of the war on drugs is pervasive.”
The final statement made by the senators appears to be a direct condemnation of the administration’s current approach to cannabis laws.
“The Administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes. We ask that the Biden Administration act quickly to rectify this decade long injustice harming individuals, especially Black and Brown communities.”
Regulators’ Speak Up
Meanwhile, a coalition of current and former cannabis regulators are calling on the administration’s DOJ to reinstate Obama-era protections for state medical cannabis program participants that was overturned by the Trump administration.
Last week members of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) sent a letter to President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and top DOJ officials calling for the return of protections similar to those of the rescinded Cole Memorandum.
The Cole Memo was introduced in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. It instructed federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing cannabis cases in states that have legalized medical cannabis as long as those states have set up a robust regulation system.
The memo was rescinded in 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the Trump administration. Since then, the DOJ has continued to act in accordance with the Cole memo, but it is under no obligation to continue to do so.
The regulators’ letter requests that the DOJ issue a new, updated version of the Cole memo. “Such a memo would restore the Department of Justice to policy guidance first established under the Obama administration. It would also modernize those guidelines, issued before a single state-legal sale was made, to address problems we’re now witnessing in commercial cannabis markets across the country.”
As with the senators’ letter to the administration, the regulators point out that the majority of Americans are opposed to current prohibitions against marijuana and attempts to appeal to authorities’ sense of reasonableness.
“We believe it’s time for the federal government to develop its own core competency on cannabis regulation. The first step is to protect the most marginalized people from further harm and allow states to begin to repair the drug war’s damage without fear of further prosecution.”
It seems like the only thing standing in the way of federal cannabis law reform today is the current administration and the agencies that operate under it.