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Warren, Sanders Urge Biden to Go a Step Further on Marijuana and Deschedule It

The Biden administration has taken steps toward loosening restrictions on marijuana, but advocates say it’s not enough.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is seen after the senate luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on January 23, 2024.

A group of 12 senators is urging the Biden administration to reconsider its decision to move marijuana to a less strict classification of drug in favor of descheduling the drug altogether and removing criminal penalties, which the senators say would be a crucial move toward undoing some of the damage of the war on drugs.

Last year, the Biden administration recommended that marijuana be removed from its status as a Schedule I drug, the most strictly guarded classification for drugs with no recognized medical use, to a lower classification as a Schedule III drug. The move was hailed as historic, but many advocates said it didn’t go far enough in addressing the issues of criminalization and restrictions around the drug.

In an effort led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), senators sent a letter on Monday to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Anne Milgram saying that there is a large volume of scientific evidence to support descheduling marijuana altogether, rather than simply rescheduling it.

“Marijuana’s placement in the [Controlled Substances Act] has had a devastating impact on our communities and is increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion,” the lawmakers wrote. The letter was signed by a dozen Democratic and progressive senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).

Under the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I drugs are considered to have the highest risk for abuse and are highly guarded for purposes like research, making it extremely hard for scientists to conduct research on the drug and its effects. Marijuana advocates say that the drug’s strict classification and harsh criminal penalties were made specifically to give the DEA and law enforcement a tool to punish Black people and suppress Black communities.

“[M]arijuana exists in the same category as heroin, and a more dangerous category than fentanyl or cocaine — even though marijuana is consistently found to be less dangerous than those substances, and less dangerous than alcohol, which is not scheduled under the CSA,” the lawmakers wrote.

“This scheduling decision was made against the political backdrop of the early 1970s, reportedly as part of President Nixon’s efforts to use cannabis prohibition to target ‘the antiwar left and black people,’” they continued, quoting former Nixon administration official John Ehrlichman.

The lawmakers highlight the “overwhelming” volume of evidence supporting descheduling and decriminalization: that studies have found that marijuana has a wide range of medical applications; that legalizing marijuana has record high support among the public; and that research has found that legalizing marijuana could ease problems associated with violent drug trafficking.

At the same time, merely rescheduling “would do little to rectify the most severe harms of the current system,” the lawmakers say, pointing out that the criminal penalties that have historically harmed Black communities the most would still be in place as long as the drug is classified with the CSA.

“The Biden Administration has a window of opportunity to deschedule marijuana that has not existed in decades and should reach the right conclusion — consistent with the clear scientific and public health rationale for removing marijuana from Schedule I, and with the imperative to relieve the burden of current federal marijuana policy on ordinary people and small businesses,” the lawmakers concluded.

Marijuana advocates have been pushing for descheduling and decriminalization — and, in many cases, legalization — for many years. As a result, marijuana is being legalized in an increasingly large number of states, with 24 states having legalized the drug for either medical or recreational use.

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