A U.S. House Republican is seeking to block the Biden administration through a spending bill amendment from rescheduling cannabis .
Last week, the U.S. House Rules Committee began looking at proposed amendments to the commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill for fiscal year 2024. One of those amendments, sponsored by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), would keep federal funds from being spent on efforts to “deschedule, reschedule or reclassify marihuana” under the Controlled Substances Act.
The Texas Republican is staunchly anti-pot—and possibly against its updated spelling—and has voted against every pro-reform bill that has crossed his path. If his proposed amendment is passed, it would throw a wrench into the gears of the Biden Administration’s plan to reschedule marijuana as a much less dangerous drug.
Cannabis is currently designated as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it isn’t considered to have any medical uses, with a high potential for abuse and addiction. Other drugs in that category include LSD, heroin and magic mushrooms.
But in October 2022, President Joe Biden instructed the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) to conduct a review of cannabis’ scheduling and make recommendations to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) about whether to remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances.
The HHS finally issued its report earlier this year, recommending that the DEA recategorize the drug as Schedule III, which would partially legalize the drug for some medical use and research. Other drugs in this category include acetaminophen with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.
The DEA has not yet responded to the recommendation, and the agency has not indicated when it will respond. But the agency has also refrained from contradicting the HHS’ findings. The DEA is expected only to consider the legal ramifications and effects on policy.
This means that the agency will likely support the recommendation. It’s only a matter of time. And since the 2024 election is around the corner, the Biden administration may pressure the agency to make its conclusions before the next election cycle. Rescheduling marijuana would represent a major step in policy reform and would be an attractive feather in Biden’s cap that could go a long way toward countering his fantastically low approval rating among Democrat voters (37 percent, according to an October Gallup poll).
Dissenters often criticize the administration’s failure to deliver on promises to free cannabis prisoners and decriminalize the drug at the federal level. On the campaign trail, both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who prosecuted drug cases as a district attorney, promised to expunge the records of marijuana prisoners and remove the drug from the list of controlled substances.
Biden announced last year that the administration was pardoning previous federal marijuana prisoners who were arrested for simple possession. The administration said it would clear the records of more than 6,500 people and hailed the move as a delivery on the president’s campaign promise. The White House failed to mention that exactly zero current prisoners would actually be released, though. “Simple possession of marijuana” is not a federal offense and is usually handled at the state level, meaning that there are no people in federal prison for it.
To make matters worse, marijuana advocate group NORML pointed out earlier this year that the administration didn’t immediately follow through on those 6,500 pardons, and they weren’t automatic. Former simple marijuana possession prisoners have to apply for the pardon with the Department of Justice. According to the agency’s website FAQ, the pardons do not apply to offenders who were arrested with drugs in addition to pot, and it doesn’t protect them from future arrests for the same offense.
And when it comes to decriminalization, the administration has completely avoided the topic until it foisted the responsibility onto the HHS last year.
Under these conditions, it could be prudent for the White House to place pressure on DEA to get the approval pushed through before the 2024 race starts to heat up in an attempt to win back disenchanted voters.
But it could all be for nothing if Sessions’ CJS amendment passes. It would tie the DEA’s hands regardless of any department recommendations.
Sessions has been working hard in other areas to keep the feds from rescheduling weed. In a September letter signed by Sessions and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), the lawmakers asked DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to reject the HHS recommendation on the grounds that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that weed is addictive and has no accepted medical uses.
The lawmakers said that federal Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals are not the same as cannabis products that consumers buy in stores and shouldn’t be given the same considerations. The letter also cites increases of cannabis poisoning incidents involving children as states legalize the drug and it claims that weed can cause psychosis in adolescents.
“It is irresponsible for HHS to recommend that marijuana be removed from Schedule I,” the pair wrote. “It would also be irresponsible for DEA to act on this recommendation. Our country relies on DEA to enforce our nation’s drug law. We ask you to uphold your mission by rejecting any effort to remove marijuana from Schedule I.”
The letter was co-signed by 12 other GOP lawmakers, representing a cross-section of Republican prohibitionists who continue to block cannabis reform efforts.
In the same month, a Republican lawmaker that didn’t sign that letter sent his own hostile inquiry to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about the HHS recommendation. Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC) ordered Becerra to answer 11 questions to explain what new evidence the agency has that led to its recommendation. Murphy’s letter highlights previous administrations’ characterization of marijuana as a dangerous drug. It’s unclear if Becerra responded.