US DEA will reclassify marijuana, ease restrictions, AP sources say

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States Drug Enforcement Administration will move to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, The Associated Press has learned, a historic shift across generations of U.S. drug policy that could have broad repercussions across the country.

The proposal, which must still be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, would recognize medical uses of cannabis and recognize that it is less likely to be abused than some of the country’s most dangerous drugs. However, this would not outright legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The agency’s decision, confirmed Tuesday to the AP by five people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive regulatory review, clears the last significant regulatory hurdle before the biggest change in policy of the agency for more than 50 years can take place. effect.

Once the OMB signs off, the DEA will consider public comments on the plan to remove marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD. It moves the pot to Schedule III, alongside ketamine and certain anabolic steroids, following a recommendation from the federal Department of Health and Social Services. After the public comment period and a review by an administrative law judge, the agency would ultimately issue the final rule.

The proposal will be formally signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose agency has ultimate oversight of the DEA, according to another person familiar with the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Garland’s signature puts the full weight of the Justice Department behind this decision and appears to signal its importance to the Biden administration.

This comes after President Joe Biden called for a review of federal marijuana law in October 2022 and moved to forgive thousands of Americans convicted federally of simple drug possession. He also called on governors and local leaders to take similar steps to expunge marijuana-related convictions.

“Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed unnecessary barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities,” Biden said in December. “Too many lives have been disrupted because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time to right these wrongs.

The election-year outlook could help Biden, a Democrat, build his support, particularly among voters. younger voters.

Biden and a growing number of lawmakers from both major political parties have pushed for the DEA’s decision, as marijuana becomes increasingly decriminalized and accepted, particularly by young people. A Gallup poll last fall found that 70% of adults support legalization, the highest level ever recorded by the polling company and more than double the roughly 30% who supported it in 2000.

The DEA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Schedule III drugs are still controlled substances and subject to rules and regulations, and people who traffic them without authorization could still face federal criminal prosecution.

Some critics argue that the DEA should not change course on marijuana, saying rescheduling is not necessary and could lead to harmful side effects.

Jack Riley, former deputy administrator of the DEA, said he is concerned about the proposed change because he believes marijuana remains a possible “gateway drug,” which could lead to the use of other drugs.

“But if we clearly want to use our resources to combat other major drugs, that’s positive,” Riley said, noting that fentanyl alone is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths a year in the United States.

On the other end of the spectrum, others argue that marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol.

Last week, 21 Democrats led by Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader of the New York Senate, sent a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram and Attorney General Merrick Garland, saying marijuana should be removed from the list of controlled substances and regulated like alcohol.

“It is time for the DEA to act,” the lawmakers wrote. “Right now, the administration has the opportunity to end more than 50 years of failed and racially discriminatory marijuana policies. »

Federal drug policy has lagged behind many states in recent years, with 38 having already legalized medical marijuana and 24 legalizing its recreational use.

This has helped fuel the rapid growth of the marijuana industry, which is estimated to be worth nearly $30 billion. Easing federal regulations could reduce the tax burden that can reach 70% or more for businesses, according to industry groups. It could also make marijuana research easier, since it is very difficult to conduct authorized clinical studies on Schedule I substances.

The immediate effect of a rescheduling on the nation’s criminal justice system would likely be more muted, since federal prosecutions for simple possession have been quite rare in recent years.

But easing restrictions could have many unintended consequences in the war on drugs and beyond.

Critics point out that as a Schedule III drug, marijuana would remain regulated by the DEA. This means that the approximately 15,000 cannabis dispensaries in the United States would have to register with the DEA like regular pharmacies and fulfill strict reporting requirements, something they are loath to do and the DEA is not. not equipped to handle.

Then there are the United States’ obligations under international treaties, including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which requires the criminalization of cannabis. In 2016, under the Obama administration, the DEA cited U.S. international obligations and the findings of a federal appeals court in Washington to reject a similar marijuana deferral request.


Goodman reported from Miami, Mustian from New Orleans. AP writer Colleen Long contributed.

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