Cannabis legalization is on the rise. But it is still illegal on the federal level. Advocates, politicians, and lawmakers have been presiding over various bills for marijuana rescheduling and descheduling. The Biden administration recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III. But critics are saying it’s not enough.
Why Isn’t Biden’s Marijuana Rescheduling Enough?
Critics state that Biden’s marijuana rescheduling recommendation does not address racial issues related to current weed laws. Natacha Andrews, executive director for the National Association of Black Cannabis Lawyers explains the issues.
“(Rescheduling) doesn’t address the immigration issues, it doesn’t address the access to federal services, and it’s not in alignment with what 38 states have done to regulate and legalize it,” she says.
Cat Packer, director of drug markets and legal regulation at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), also weighed in. “My initial reaction is that this is less than what the Biden administration promised specifically.
“This decision leaves me and other communities that are concerned about the harmful impacts of cannabis criminalization wondering how President Biden is going to keep his promises around specifically decriminalizing personal use.”
What Does Biden’s Marijuana Rescheduling Mean?
Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug. That means it is in the same category as hardcore drugs like heroin and methamphetamines. It has a high tendency for addiction and little medical value.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has advised shifting it to Schedule III. Drugs in that category have a low potential for addiction. Examples of Schedule III drugs are ketamine, anabolic steroids, and benzphetamine.
Although the HHS has recommended marijuana rescheduling, it must still be approved by the DEA. The organization has the final say.
Marijuana Rescheduling is Not the Same as Decriminalization
The main issue with Biden’s marijuana rescheduling is, it does not address decriminalization.
Biden voiced his opinion at a 2020 town hall meeting. “I don’t believe anybody should be going to jail for drug use,” he said.
Two years later, he announced pardons for everyone convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. He also asked the HHS to review marijuana scheduling.
The proposed marijuana rescheduling would mean the federal government acknowledges that marijuana has some medical benefits, but it is still considered an illegal substance.
“What Biden promised and what people are crying out for is a combination of decriminalization and equity and neither of those things are even remotely addressed by going from Schedule I to Schedule III,” Andrews said.
“It takes people who already have access, who already have resources, who already have connections, who already have politicians in their pocket, and it gives them a leg up.”
Andrews acknowledged that marijuana rescheduling would have benefits, but they wouldn’t be enough.
“When you look at the realities, there will still be people arrested, there will still be people detained, there will still be people deported. There will still be moms going into custody battles because they have a legal cannabis card but someone that day felt that they didn’t,” she said.
Marijuana Rescheduling Does Not Address Cannabis Prohibition
Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project director of state policies, feels that cannabis prohibition must be addressed. Rescheduling is not enough.
“White folks and African Americans tend to use cannabis at roughly the same rates,” O’Keefe said. “Despite that, we see more than three times as many arrests for cannabis possession by Black individuals as we do for white individuals. We see these disparities at every level- at searches, stops, arrests, sentencing, and incarceration, and we also have some cases where law enforcement was very explicitly motivated by racism.”
Biden pardoned people with federally convicted of marijuana possession. But he did not exclude people who had other drug offenses, those who were carrying another substance at the time of arrest, and individuals who were not lawful permanent residents at the time of the arrest.
And the president did not grant expungements as he promised during his campaign. He granted pardons instead. Unlike expungements, pardons do not permanently erase convictions from criminal records.
Critics state that Biden’s actions to change marijuana laws have historically fallen short in terms of pardons rather than expungements and rescheduling rather than descheduling.
David Nation, founder and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, is concerned that marijuana rescheduling will lead to the Biden administration saying, “OK, we did something and now we’re done.
Other Limitations with Marijuana Rescheduling
Marijuana rescheduling won’t do much for the medical industry. Doctors will still be unable to prescribe it to patients. FDA approval will be necessary for prescriptions to be issued. Nathan feels a Schedule III designation will not be enough to motivate the agency to move forward.
He also noted that the FDA tends to approve plant extracts as opposed to the botanical itself.
Andrews also pointed out that marijuana rescheduling could affect current state decriminalization laws.
“It has the potential to derail a lot of state programs. The legalization within states violates the order of operations. Not knowing what the next step is going to be that the DEA takes leaves a lot of things in question,” she says.
She notes that the “bottom-up” legalization system could result in the disruption of medical programs, recreational use laws, and more.
Other critics point out that marijuana rescheduling will benefit existing marijuana businesses which are mostly white-owned. It will allow them to deduct expenses that are not currently approved due to marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance.
Andrews also noted that pharmaceutical companies will benefit more than minority cannabis business owners.
O’Keefe noted that decriminalization and rescheduling won’t address all problems. She feels that marijuana federal legalization is the only answer. She noted that decriminalization can still result in violent police interactions that disproportionately target minority communities.
She also stated a need for reparative justice.
“Reparative justice measures things like removing the stigma, removing old criminal convictions, freeing prisoners, having setups so you have employment training and assistance for disproportionately impacted and Black and Brown communities to own cannabis businesses. So, at the bare minimum, I think legalization is what’s needed federally,” she said.