DEA Tells Congress It Has ‘Final Authority’ On Marijuana, Regardless Of Health Agency’s Schedule III Recommendation

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is telling lawmakers that it reserves “the final authority” to make any scheduling decision on marijuana following an ongoing review, regardless of what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends.

In a letter sent to Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), DEA Acting Chief of the Office of Congressional Affairs Michael Miller gave a general overview of the scheduling review process that was initiated under a directive from President Joe Biden in October 2022.

That started with a scientific assessment from HHS that reportedly advised DEA to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Once HHS made its recommendation in August, “DEA conducts its own review,” the letter, sent last month and first reported by Punchbowl News, says.

“DEA has the final authority to schedule, reschedule, or deschedule a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, after considering the relevant statutory and regulatory criteria and HHS’s scientific and medical evaluation,” it says. “DEA is now conducting its review.”

The agency’s statement came in response to an earlier letter from 31 bipartisan lawmakers, led by Blumenauer, that implored DEA to consider the “merits” of legalization as it carried out its review. That initial letter also criticized the limitations of simply placing cannabis in Schedule III, as opposed to fully removing the plant from CSA control.

“While Congress works to send the President comprehensive cannabis legislation, the urgency of full descheduling should inform DEA’s position on overall cannabis reform and appropriate enforcement centered on advancing public safety, not unjust criminalization,” the lawmakers’ letter said. “Marijuana’s continued inappropriate scheduling is both arcane and out-of-touch with the will of the American people.”

In that context, DEA’s response offered little insight, with the agency declining to address the lawmakers’ key arguments and instead simply outlining the procedural details of the scheduling review.

It also did not divulge any details about the timeline for the completion of the review, though many observers expect it to wrap up ahead of the November election.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently concluded that it was “likely” that DEA would follow the HHS recommendation based on past precedent, but as DEA reiterated in the letter last month, it has final jurisdiction over the CSA and maintains the right to disregard the health agency’s advice.

Also, despite the furor over the ongoing rescheduling review, outside observers still know little about HHS’s justification for its recommendation that cannabis be moved to Schedule III. While the agency sent hundreds of pages of explanation to DEA as part of its rescheduling recommendation, those documents have so far only been released in highly redacted form, with little to no indication of the federal health agency’s findings related to possible medical benefits, addictive potential or any other aspect of the policy decision.

DEA has received a number of messages from different sides of the cannabis policy debate in recent months, including a recent letter from 29 former U.S. attorneys who urged the Biden administration to leave cannabis in Schedule I.

Last month, the governors of six U.S. states—Colorado, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Louisiana—sent a letter to Biden calling on the administration to reschedule marijuana by the end of last year.

Meanwhile, six former DEA heads and five former White House drug czars sent a letter to the attorney general and current DEA administrator voicing opposition to the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana. They also made a questionable claim about the relationship between drug schedules and criminal penalties in a way that could exaggerate the potential impact of the incremental reform.

Signatories include DEA and Office of National Drug Control Policy heads under multiple administrations led by presidents of both major parties.

In October, Advocates and lawmakers who support cannabis reform marked the one-year anniversary of Biden’s mass marijuana pardon and scheduling directive this month by calling on him to do more—including by expanding the scope of relief that his pardon had and by expressly supporting federal legalization.

Two GOP senators, including the lead Republican sponsor of a marijuana banking bill that cleared a key committee in September, also filed legislation late last year to prevent federal agencies from rescheduling cannabis without tacit approval from Congress.

A coalition of 14 Republican congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, has urged DEA to “reject” the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana and instead keep it in the most restrictive category under the CSA.

Separately, DEA recently announced that it is taking another shot at banning two psychedelics after abandoning its original scheduling proposal in 2022, teeing up another fight with researchers and advocates who say the compounds hold therapeutic potential.

The agency has separately warned Georgia pharmacies that dispensing THC is unlawful because it remains a Schedule I drug after the state became the first in the U.S. to allow pharmacies to sell medical marijuana, with nearly 120 facilities applying to sell cannabis oil.

Read the DEA response letter on its marijuana scheduling review below: 

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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