As the Biden administration’s marijuana scheduling review continues, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says his agency is uniquely positioned to “update the science” to ensure that drugs are “properly” classified under federal law.
During a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about his agency’s role in the “scheduling process” under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as compared to that of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is now considering HHS’s recommendation to move cannabis to Schedule III.
While the senator didn’t explicitly mention marijuana in his question, HHS did recently complete an 11-month review into the plant under a directive from President Joe Biden last year, reaching the conclusion that the science no longer supports keeping cannabis in Schedule I.
That decision is ultimately left up to DEA, however. HHS’s scientific findings are binding, but DEA can still make any scheduling decision it sees fit after it completes its own review.
“It is our responsibility to try to give the science on substances so that, therefore, DEA can then decide where to classify that substance when it comes to being a narcotic or a substance that could have an impact on society,” Becerra told the senator. “We undertake an effort to make sure that we update the science. We want to make sure that if we’re scheduling a particular substance or drug, it’s properly scheduled.”
Watch the secretary discuss its role in the drug scheduling review process, starting at 2:20:20 in the video below:
In general, HHS and DEA have historically been aligned on what constitutes proper scheduling, which is why congressional researchers said in a recent report that it’s “likely” DEA will go along with the Schedule III recommendation. DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in July that she will “look at all the research” and “keep an open mind” as her agency considers scheduling action.
But the stakes are arguably higher with marijuana compared to other drugs that have gone through this review process. And DEA is facing significant pressure from opposing sides of the debate, with GOP hardliners and former administrators of the agency pushing it to maintain the status quo while advocates and stakeholders press for reform.
Becerra mentioned fentanyl as an example of a drug that’s “having an impact on our country,” making its scheduling status all the more relevant.
“We want to make sure that they are properly, based on the science, scheduled for activity,” he said. “We also want to, for example, make sure that we can do the research that’s necessary to determine how to schedule a drug.”
Again, Heinrich and Becerra didn’t specifically discuss the marijuana review, though the secretary has taken an active interest in promoting the agency’s work to expeditiously complete its work and submit a recommendation to DEA under Biden’s directive.
Becerra has also been known to play into cannabis culture as his agency has worked to update the public about the status of the scheduling review, sharing news about the issue at the symbolic time of 4:20 on more than one occasion, for example.
The exact content of the HHS recommendation and scientific findings has not yet been disclosed, however. The agency has so far only released a heavily redacted letter to DEA’s Milgram notifying her about its conclusion.
What’s also unclear is the timeline for when DEA will complete its cannabis review. For what it’s worth, however, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official says he’d be “shocked” if DEA doesn’t reschedule marijuana by next year’s presidential election.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 31 bipartisan House lawmakers has sent a letter the DEA administrator last month, urging her to take into account congressional and state marijuana legalization efforts as the agency carries out its scheduling review. They also criticized the limitations of simple rescheduling as they push for complete a complete removal of marijuana from the CSA.
The letter serves as a counterbalance to other recent messages DEA has received from congressional opponents of reform and former DEA and White House drug czars who argue that even moving marijuana to Schedule III would go too far.
Fourteen Republican congressional lawmakers recently 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.
Two GOP senators, including the lead Republican sponsor of a marijuana banking bill that cleared a key committee in September, have also recently filed legislation to prevent federal agencies from rescheduling cannabis without tacit approval from Congress.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) separately submitted an amendment for a spending bill that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to reschedule or deschedule marijuana.
Advocates and lawmakers who support cannabis reform, meanwhile, marked the one-year anniversary of Biden’s mass marijuana pardon and scheduling directive by calling on him to do more—including by expanding the scope of relief that his pardon had and by expressly supporting federal legalization.
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