A leading cannabis group is planning to mobilize the “largest bi-partisan coalition of cannabis advocacy, industry, and grassroots organizations” that will convene in Washington, D.C. to push for federal reform just ahead of the marijuana holiday 4/20 this year.
Organized by the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), the meeting will feature an ideologically diverse collection of advocates and stakeholders to promote legalization centered in equity, the organization said in a press release on Thursday.
LPP has also released a new memo that’s meant to help guide advocates on how to “leverage” a potential federal cannabis rescheduling decision to fight for more comprehensive reform at the administrative and congressional levels.
The limitations of simple rescheduling were detailed in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that was released on Tuesday, explaining how state cannabis markets would continue to run afoul of federal law and certain criminal penalties for marijuana-related activity would remain in force, for example.
For the April 18 event, representatives of multiple national marijuana organizations and trade associations are already set to participate. Those include the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), NORML, Parabola Center, Reason Foundation, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and more.
“We are thrilled to participate in this day of action to underscore the urgency of marijuana justice,” Maritza Perez Medina, director of federal affairs at DPA, said. “At this critical juncture for federal marijuana reform, our communities will not be sidelined.”
MCBA President Kaliko Castille said the organization “is proud to support this day of action because it’s clear that Congress needs to be reminded during this critical election year that ending prohibition has the broad support of the American public.”
“Congress is the only governing body that can truly end this national nightmare of locking humans in cages simply for possessing or growing a plant. Our communities can’t afford to wait any longer,” he said.
The LPP memo, meanwhile, lays out various avenues for equity-focused cannabis reform that could build upon any scheduling change, such as pushing for standalone congressional legislation to facilitate expungements and urging the Biden administration to expand the scope of the president’s mass pardons for cannabis possession offenses by commuting the sentences of people currently serving time for federal marijuana-related convictions.
It also notes that rescheduling could embolden the Justice Department to issue updated guidance on prosecutorial discretion for federal marijuana cases. And it says state officials could additionally leverage existing administrative mechanisms to provide for retroactive relief for past cannabis offenses, which could also be incentivized with a federal rescheduling action.
“We need an all hands on deck approach to ending the unjust war on our community, which means leveraging incremental wins as we build toward bigger, bolder reforms,” LPP Executive Director Sarah Gersten, who authored the new memo, said. “While rescheduling alone will not offer retroactive relief, it would be a historic shift in policy, and we must be ready to push open the door of reform when it happens. We have outlined several ways the administration can achieve real relief and add substance to the President’s mostly symbolic reforms so far.”
Geoffrey Lawrence, research director at the Reason Foundation who recently coauthored an op-ed for Marijuana Moment on the shortcomings of existing state social equity programs, said rescheduling cannabis “might sound like a good idea, but it’s fraught with danger”
“A Schedule III designation would continue to criminalize the manufacture, distribution, or possession of marijuana at the federal level for any products that haven’t received pre-market approval from the FDA,” he said. “Substantively, that means the change would imply no relief from criminal law for existing consumers or licensees, while any new exercise of regulatory authority by the FDA could imperil existing state-regulated markets.”
“All the progress advocates have made over past decades could be erased,” he added. “Full descheduling is the only approach that should be considered for marijuana.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finally released its full Schedule III recommendation and scientific findings it shared with DEA last week, and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said his agency has “communicated” their “position” on marijuana rescheduling to DEA and has continued to offer additional information to assist with the final determination.
DEA has steadfastly maintained it has “final authority” over the matter and can make any scheduling determination that it sees fit, however.
“DEA has the final authority to schedule, reschedule, or deschedule a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, after considering the relevant statutory and regulatory criteria and HHS’s scientific and medical evaluation,” the agency said in a letter to lawmakers last month. “DEA is now conducting its review.”
The statement came in response to an earlier letter from 31 bipartisan lawmakers, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), that urged the agency to consider the “merits” of legalization as it carried out its review.
DEA has faced pressure on both sides of the marijuana policy debate over recent months, with advocates pressing for a Schedule III decision, or complete descheduling, and prohibitionists urging the agency to keep cannabis in Schedule I.
Prior to the HHS documents’ release, a coalition of 12 Democratic state attorneys general implored DEA to move forward with federal marijuana rescheduling, calling the policy change a “public safety imperative.”
In another letter last month, 29 former U.S. attorneys called on the Biden administration to leave cannabis in Schedule I.
Last month, the governors of six U.S. states—Colorado, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Louisiana—sent a letter to Biden calling on the administration to reschedule marijuana by the end of last year.
Meanwhile, six former DEA heads and five former White House drug czars sent a letter to the attorney general and current DEA administrator voicing opposition to the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana. They also made a questionable claim about the relationship between drug schedules and criminal penalties in a way that could exaggerate the potential impact of the incremental reform.
Signatories include DEA and Office of National Drug Control Policy heads under multiple administrations led by presidents of both major parties.
In October, Advocates and lawmakers who support cannabis reform marked the one-year anniversary of Biden’s mass marijuana pardon and scheduling directive this month by calling on him to do more—including by expanding the scope of relief that his pardon had and by expressly supporting federal legalization.
Two GOP senators, including the lead Republican sponsor of a marijuana banking bill that cleared a key committee in September, also filed legislation late last year to prevent federal agencies from rescheduling cannabis without tacit approval from Congress.
A coalition of 14 Republican congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, has urged DEA to “reject” the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana and instead keep it in the most restrictive category under the CSA.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.