The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is aiming to present President Joe Biden with a federal cannabis scheduling decision “this year” as agencies work “as quickly as we can” to complete an administrative review, Secretary Xavier Becerra told Marijuana Moment during a press briefing in Sacramento on Thursday.
While Becerra and other federal officials have previously emphasized that they are working “expeditiously” to carry out the cannabis review, which the president directed late last year, there’s been a lack of clarity about the specific timeline. Now the secretary has disclosed when he hopes to deliver on the president’s directive.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under HHS is carrying out an eight-step scientific review into marijuana to determine whether it should be rescheduled, descheduled or remain in Schedule I, which is reserved for the most strictly controlled drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
“What I can tell you is that the president instructed us at HHS—FDA in particular—to take a look at how we treat marijuana to see if we can update our review of marijuana as a drug and how we can make sure how we treat it going forward on the federal level,” Becerra told Marijuana Moment. “Places like California have already changed the laws, the federal government has not, and so we’ve been instructed and we’re underway with that review as we speak.”
He said that HHS, along with other agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), are “working together to try to see if we can give the president an answer that’s based on the science and the evidence. Stay tuned. We hope to be able to get there pretty soon—hopefully this year.”
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It’s not a definitive deadline, but it is the clearest timetable offered yet by a top federal official—providing new insight into what the secretary thinks may be achievable within the next six months.
Once HHS finalizes its review, it will send a scheduling recommendation to DEA, which makes the final call. The health agency’s scientific findings are binding, but DEA could theoretically flout the resulting recommendation.
As Becerra was on his way out from Thursday’s presser, which focused on food science innovation at the University of California Davis Health’s Sacramento campus, Marijuana Moment asked for his thinking on another drug policy issue: psychedelics.
The secretary said he needed to “defer” to the expertise of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which also falls under HHS, “because I want to make sure that I touch base with what they’ve been doing on that.”
“But as I said, we are working to try to get out there as quickly as we can on marijuana,” he said.
When it comes to marijuana, lawmakers—including Congressional Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee (D-CA) and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—have joined advocates in urging the Biden administration to expedite the scheduling review process as legislators work to advance more incremental measures like marijuana banking reform.
“In order for the Biden Administration to accomplish its stated goals—ranging from restoring integrity of law, addressing racial equity, and a laundry list of other priorities—the descheduling of marijuana must be central,” Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday.
“There are very few issues as deeply ingrained to the self-inflicted problems we as a nation face like prohibition, and Secretary Becerra, Attorney General Garland, and President Biden have a unique opportunity to bring fairness and sanity by addressing this correctly and quickly,” he said.
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Becerra, for his part, is keenly aware of the significant public interest in his department’s work to complete the scheduling review. He said in March that “we are trying to work quickly but still have a few hoops we need to jump through.”
“It’s got to go through a number of hoops and, again, safety and efficacy are what will drive this determination, so stay tuned,” the secretary, who has been known to play into the symbolism of 420 on Twitter, said.
More than a dozen bipartisan congressional lawmakers sent a letter Becerra and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in March, demanding transparency in the cannabis scheduling review.
The letter said that Biden’s scheduling directive represents “an opportunity to make honest assessment of the origins and implications of federal policy,” adding that “marijuana was scheduled based on stigma not science,” and it’s “time to address marijuana’s existing reality as a state-regulated substance.”
Separately, Garland said at a Senate hearing in March that DOJ is “still working on a marijuana policy” while awaiting the results of the scientific review from health agencies.
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