Rescheduling Cannabis Would Be a Broken Promise
President Joe Biden said during his campaign that "nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana" and later made a promise that he would decriminalize the substance as president.
We appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the failures of marijuana prohibition.
Our current approach to marijuana has not advanced any public safety or public health goals but it has ruined the lives of many individuals while companies are earning massive profits off their state-legal cannabis operations.
But those promises Biden made remain unfulfilled nearly three years into his term. He has not taken either direct action to fulfill them or used his position to encourage Congress to do so.
We recently sent the president a joint letter reminding him that only the complete removal of marijuana from the federal drug schedules—or descheduling—will fulfill the promise he made during his campaign. A decision by the Drug Enforcement Agency to adopt the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services and move marijuana to Schedule III does not decriminalize the substance nor reduce the harm caused by federal prohibition.
As members of the leading coalitions working with both sides of the aisle, we disagree on specific policy choices. But we do equally believe that the Biden administration may make a well-intentioned mistake that only exacerbates the unsustainable conflict between state and federal laws that is causing major injustice.
We and others have extensively debated and researched the implications of rescheduling. The blunt reality is that rescheduling alone is merely a recriminalization of the existing state markets.
Currently, the cannabis marketplace is regulated by 48 states through various regulatory systems. They have taken different approaches, but many have created marketplaces with safe, regulated products that are successfully shifting consumers and providers away from the illicit market.
Any action to merely move marijuana to another schedule does not change the legal status of these programs, licensed companies, and individuals operating in a fully legal manner under existing state rules and regulations. None of these systems comply with the new federal laws and regulations that would now be in force under another schedule.
This change in the scheduling of marijuana will not prevent one person from "going to jail for smoking marijuana" and could cause more to go to jail if the federal government changes its non-interventionist stance. Those who are following their state laws 100 percent of the time will still risk arrest and many years in federal prison. Both create significant barriers for people to secure gainful employment, education, immigration status, and housing opportunities. Research shows that these barriers will fall much more heavily on Black individuals and those with less financial resources.
The outcome of such a change could also be the imposition of a maze of complicated regulations and rules that most patients, companies, and state regulators will be unable to navigate. Only the largest companies would be able to navigate the FDA standards for the lawful distribution of a scheduled drug. Hundreds of currently state-compliant small businesses could be forced to go out of business.
For these reasons and many more, the members of our coalitions coming from very different political perspectives do not support merely rescheduling marijuana. The only way to truly end the federal criminalization of cannabis is for President Biden to work with Congress to deschedule the substance and craft a well-thought-out plan for reasonable federal regulation. Any other path forward will only continue the failed and unjust status quo and will not fulfill the president's promise of decriminalization.