Biden administration reclassifies marijuana in historic shift

The move upends nearly a century of American drug and criminal justice policy

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
Thursday 16 May 2024 20:59
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First-ever marijuana vending machine

At President Joe Biden’s urging, the Department of Justice has officially started the process to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug than most prescription painkillers and many addictive stimulants, ending decades of policy that treated it as having no acceptable medical use.

The department published a draft regulation in the Federal Register that would, if made final, place marijuana in the category known as Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule III drugs are those that are known to have “a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances” in Schedule I – the category reserved for drugs with “no accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse” – and Schedule II, the category that includes highly addictive substances such as fentanyl and oxycodone.

Marijuana has been classified under Schedule I since the advent of the federal government’s modern drug regulation regime in the 1970s, and it has been banned under federal law since the since-overturned Marijuana Tax Act effectively outlawed its’ cultivation in the 1930s.

The Biden administration’s action, which Mr Biden announced in a video posted to social media, represents a historic shift in American drug policy as well as a significant step in his efforts to effect criminal justice reform.

“This is monumental,” Mr Biden said in the video. “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana, and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

The president had taken an initial step towards removing marijuana from the Schedule I category in 2022, when he asked the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate whether it should remain in that category. An HHS report released earlier this year recommended that the drug be reclassified and removed from the Schedule I categorisation.

He also took the step of issuing blanket pardons for all Americans who have been convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law in October 2022 and December 2023.

Speaking at the daily White House press briefing on Thursday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration’s action, if finalised, would “remove burdensome, longstanding barriers to critical research” on the drug. She also described the move as part of Mr Biden’s commitment to racial equity.

“The reality is while white, black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates. The president’s actions today further his commitment to reverse longstanding injustices and to right historic wrongs,” she said.

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