The federal health agency recommends easing restrictions on marijuana

The top national health agency is recommending easing restrictions on marijuana, which could herald a sea change in federal cannabis policy.

The Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassify marijuana as a low-risk, Schedule III controlled substance, according to a person familiar with the recommendation who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to do so. talk about the matter. Marijuana is currently a Schedule I controlled substance, considered along with heroin and LSD as potentially abusable and with little or no accepted medical use.

The DEA, which said it has the final authority to classify a drug under federal law, confirmed it had received a recommendation from HHS and said it would now begin its review. The process could take months. If the DEA followed the recommendations of health agencies, marijuana would be placed in the same category as anabolic steroids and ketamine, which can be obtained with a prescription.

Such a decision would not fully legalize marijuana federally, a policy that has long conflicted with those of states that have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. But that however, it could alter the cannabis landscape in this country, spurring the regulated marijuana industry in states where it is legal and even facilitating more scientific research into the drug’s effects.

We believe the rescheduling to Schedule III will mark the most significant federal cannabis reform in modern history, said Edward Conklin of the US Cannabis Council, a nonprofit that supports the regulated cannabis industry. President Biden is effectively declaring an end to Nixon’s failed war on cannabis and setting the nation on a trajectory toward ending Prohibition.

Marijuana legalization has increasingly garnered bipartisan support. Twenty-three states and DC have legalized recreational marijuana, and medicinal use is legal in 38 states. According to federal survey data, about 36.4 million people ages 12 and older have used marijuana in the past month. The number of Americans diagnosed with cannabis use disorder has also increased, federal data shows.

The HHS recommendation is consistent with efforts by President Biden, who is running for re-election in 2024, to reshape national marijuana policies.

Last October, Biden offered a pardon to anyone convicted of a federal crime simply for possession of the drug, and ordered his administration to expedite a review of whether marijuana should continue to be listed as a Schedule I substance.

The recommendation to recategorize marijuana was made in a letter HHS sent to the DEA this week, though officials from both agencies have declined to publish the letter or confirm the nature of the recommendation. Bloomberg News first reported the Schedule III recommendation.

Supporters of full legalization say the HHS recommendation isn’t broad enough and people could still face criminal charges related to owning or dealing in consumer goods. controlled substances.

Just as it is intellectually dishonest to classify cannabis in the same position as heroin, it is equally untrue to treat cannabis in the same way as anabolic steroids, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-legalization organization NORML, said in a statement. The organization advocates that marijuana be treated in the same way as tobacco and alcohol, which are not controlled substances.

He added: It will be very interesting to see how the DEA responds to this recommendation, given the agency’s historical opposition to any potential changes to the categorization of cannabis under federal law.

Other experts believe the DEA will follow HHS’s lead. Howard Sklamberg, a former Food and Drug Administration official, said HHS’s stance is a big deal in the government’s long and complicated relationship with marijuana, and he expects the DEA to go along with the health agencies’ recommendation. That’s because the DEA has to defer to HHS on the scientific and medical aspects of the matter, which make up a large part of the planning decision, he said.

Additionally, reduced marijuana programming would send an important message from the federal government that marijuana poses a lower risk to public health than the government has claimed in the past. That could make it easier for some states to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, Sklamberg said.

Congressmen who support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana have applauded the administration’s move. If the DEA accepts the HHS recommendation, it will be a historic step for a nation whose cannabis policies are out of touch with reality, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement. .

But ultimately, Wyden said, cannabis would need to be rescheduled and removed from the controlled substances list with tough federal regulations put in place to protect public health and safety.

Progress can’t stop there, Wyden said. The administration and my colleagues in Congress must do more to bring US cannabis policy into the 21st century, catch up with states, and help undo the decades of damage caused by the failed War on Drugs.

Cannabis businesses in Wydens’ home state, as in others where recreational marijuana is legal, will benefit from the adoption of a rescheduling. State-regulated marijuana industries boomed during the pandemic, but are now failing due to high operating costs, competition and oversupply.

Under the federal tax code, companies cannot deduct many ordinary business expenses if they deal in Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substances. That ban would no longer apply if marijuana became a Schedule III substance, finally allowing many cannabis companies to turn a profit, said Griffen Thorne, a Los Angeles-based cannabis industry lawyer.

This would be a lifeline for an industry that has really suffered, Thorne said.

Shares of cannabis companies rose Wednesday afternoon after the HHS recommendation became public.

The change in marijuana’s status could also improve efforts to understand the health benefits or harms of marijuana, a body of research that has long been complicated by the federal status of drugs.

Researchers have to go through several steps to study marijuana, said Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego. That includes getting research approval from the DEA and obtaining marijuana samples for studies directly from the federal government, he said.

In California, if I had to choose to get marijuana, I can just go to one of the dispensaries, Grant said. However, as a scientist and a doctor, I cannot buy it and provide it to a participant.

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