GOP Candidate Nikki Haley Addresses Federal Cannabis Reform

During a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall that aired Jan. 18, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked GOP candidate Nikki Haley whether or not she would support the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that cannabis be reclassified to a Schedule III drug from a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). As a Schedule I drug, cannabis is classified “among the most dangerous drugs in the country, alongside heroin and LSD,” as Tapper noted in his question to Haley.

Haley replied, “I mean, I think I’ll go with the scientists on that. I think it’s obviously not in the same class as heroin. But I also think that when you’re looking at the legalization of this, I want states to be able to decide that. That’s something that should be as close to the people as possible. Some states are all for it and want to see that happen, and some states want nothing to do with it. But I do think that should be more of a state decision on whether they legalize it or not.”

Her response, as well as previous responses to other cannabis-policy questions posed before the FDA’s reclassification recommendation, suggests Haley would not push for federal cannabis reform.

For example, during a “Conversation with the Candidate” interview led by Adam Sexton that aired on New Hampshire ABC affiliate WMUR-TV May 23, Sexton said, “the federal government is essentially looking the other way as states move forward with the legalization of marijuana.” He then asked Haley, if Congress doesn’t take further action, if as president, she would “change anything about the enforcement or nonenforcement of federal cannabis laws.” Haley replied, “I’m a states’ rights person. So I think these types of decisions are best decided at the state level. It’s where people can show the power of their voice. Some states will want to see it, and that allows them the right to do that. Some don’t want to see it. And that allows them that right. And so I’m always, especially as a governor, believe that the freedoms of people to decide what it is they want in their state is really important and we need to stay true to that.”

An October 2023 Gallup poll found that cannabis legalization support has reached an all-time high across the U.S. with 70% of Americans in favor of legalization, and that support for legalization is the same across states that have legalized cannabis as those that have not. 

The review of cannabis’s classification under the CSA and the resulting FDA recommendation “resulted from President Joe Biden’s directive in October 2022 to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to initiate an administrative process on cannabis’s CSA scheduling via a medical and scientific analysis of cannabis,” Cannabis Business Times reported Jan. 12.

The recommendation to reschedule cannabis to a Schedule III drug is the first public government acknowledgement that “after analyzing the science and data, cannabis has acceptable medical uses and a moderate to low risk of physical dependence,” as CBT reported.

“The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has the final authority to reschedule cannabis based on the HHS and FDA findings–or not.”

President Biden recently talked briefly about his cannabis policy during a South Carolina campaign stop Jan. 27. And while the topic constituted just 15 seconds of his 24-minute speech, “the fact that the president mentioned his cannabis policy at all one week ahead of the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 3 could be an indicator of where his campaign strategy stands on cannabis moving forward,” CBT Associate Editor Tony Lange wrote.

And according to at least one poll, Biden would get a boost in public opinion if cannabis were to be rescheduled. “According to an October 2023 poll released by Lake Research Partners in December, impressions of Biden would improve by double-digits should the president be successful in his directive regarding rescheduling cannabis, as first reported by Politico,” as CBT reported. “Moreover, 58% of likely voters support rescheduling cannabis to a Schedule III substance while only 19% oppose it.”

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