Senate

Democrats press Biden to use ‘existing authority’ to take step toward marijuana legalization

Democratic senators are putting pressure on the Biden administration to use its authority to deschedule cannabis, as a Senate proposal to legalize marijuana faces an uphill battle. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and others on Wednesday sent a letter calling on the Biden administration to “use its existing authority to (i) deschedule cannabis and (ii) issue pardons to all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses.”

“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,” they wrote in the letter, which was addressed to President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

The lawmakers say the letter is a follow-up to earlier requests asking that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “use its existing authority under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) to begin the process of removing cannabis’s classification as a Schedule I drug.”

The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.

The senators said they sent the earlier letter to the DOJ in October 2021 and that the office responded to the request in mid-April with a “half-page” they described as “extraordinarily disappointing.”

The response, the lawmakers said, cited HHS’s “determination that ‘cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition’ as the sole rationale for the DOJ’s lack of action.”

“But this assertion ignores the ability of the DOJ and Drug Enforcement Administration to begin the descsheduling process and act independently of an HHS determination,” the lawmakers wrote, adding the CSA “empowers the Attorney General to initiate proceedings to reschedule or deschedule a drug, either individually or at the request of the HHS Secretary or another interested party.”

The senators pointed to “widely accepted medical benefits” of cannabis to push for the action, as well as a recommendation by the World Health Organization to reclassify “cannabis from its most restrictive classification under international drug treaties.”

The letter also cited public support for marijuana legalization, the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use over the years and the unequal burden communities of color have faced due to the nation’s “racist and harmful legacy of cannabis policies.”

“The legacy of the war on drugs is pervasive. It is estimated that over 40,000 individuals are still incarcerated for cannabis related offenses,” they wrote. “A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2020 found that Black individuals were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession even with comparable usage rates amongst individuals of all races. In some states Black individuals were almost 10 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession.”

“We ask that the Biden Administration act quickly to rectify this decade long injustice harming individuals, especially Black and Brown communities,” they said. They added that the Biden administration has yet to respond to a November letter from Democrats asking that the president use his authority “to pardon all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated.”

While they commended Biden on the recent pardons and commutations of 78 people, which they said included “nine with non-violent cannabis related offenses,” they added that “much more has to be done.”

The letter comes as a number of Senate Democrats leading a push to legalize marijuana say they’re on track to introduce legislation before the August recess. 

However, many Republicans are opposed to the idea and to secure passage in the 50-50 Senate Democrats would need the support of their entire caucus and at least 10 Republicans to bypass a likely filibuster.

Tags Biden cannnabis deschedule Elizabeth Warren Marijuana marijuana legalization Merrick Garland Xavier Becerra
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