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Biden Administration Makes History with Announcement Kicking Off the Process to Reschedule Cannabis

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Biden Administration Announces Start of Process to Reschedule Cannabis

It appears this could finally be the year that the United States follows through with long promised federal reform of cannabis laws. The Biden Administration made history when they announced the first formal steps towards rescheduling cannabis in the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), proposing a move from Schedule I to Schedule III.

There have been more attempts to reschedule cannabis since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act in the 70s than I can keep track of – but this is the first time the process has actually been started.

The Justice Department Opened Public Comment on Rescheduling Cannabis

On Thursday, May 16th, 2024 the United States Justice Department formally submitted a proposal to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II in the CSA. While the proposal is still waiting on review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, it is the first step in a somewhat lengthy (not compared to the wait to get this far) process to make the change official.

According to The Marijuana Moment, in its formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the Justice Department “proposes rescheduling marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III,” they said. “Marijuana is currently classified higher than fentanyl and meth—the drugs driving our Nation’s overdose epidemic.”

Timeline for U.S. Rescheduling of Cannabis

There’s no specific timeframe or deadline in place demanding the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have the rescheduling process finalized. In reality it could be as quickly as a few months happening shortly after the upcoming period of public comment.

Or it could be dragged out for months with additional hearings before we can officially say the U.S. federal government has truly recognized the medicinal value of the cannabis plant, as well as its low potential for abuse.

What’s the Process From Here?

  • The proposal is approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget to move forward for a period of public comment
  • There will be a 60 day period where the general public will be encouraged to provide their opinions and thoughts toward the plan to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III per recommendations by the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • During the first 30 days there will be the opportunity to request hearings, which would need to be held before an administrative law judge – these hearings could potentially delay the process.
  • Once the 60 day public commenting period ends – and any hearings have concluded – the DEA will finally issue their final order that reschedules cannabis, placing it among pharmaceuticals like Tylenol with codeine (90mg of codeine per dose or less), ketamine, testosterone, and anabolic steroids.

Of course, there’s the small chance that the DEA would go through this process and still decide not to change the classification of cannabis – but they have been cooperative (though firm in reminding they get the final say) since the Biden Administration and Department of Health and Human Services first requested they consider making this change.

What Will the Change From Schedule I to Schedule III Mean for State-Legal Cannabis?

While moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the CSA is no doubt a landmark move that is decades late, it only addresses a handful of the problems faced by the semi-legal U.S. cannabis industry.

There's a lot that would change when (and if) cannabis is knocked down a couple of tiers to Schedule III. These days, even police and veterans want to see this change, knowing what a huge impact it could make. Here's a look at just a few of the most significant changes we’ll see after cannabis is reclassified as a Schedule III drug.

Remove Barriers to Cannabis Research and Clinical Trials

Since Schedule I drugs are considered to have no accepted medical value with a high potential for abuse, it’s extremely difficult to get through the red tape to conduct the necessary research.

While this might make sense in the case of other Schedule I drugs like heroin and LSD, there are decades of research proving the medicinal value that marijuana has to offer, and most of the U.S. has access to medical cannabis through state-sanctioned programs.

Though it won’t remove all barriers to research, we can expect to see the number of federally backed studies and clinical trials rise quickly after the scheduling change. This could potentially open the door for more cannabis-based medicines to join CBD-based Epidiolex among those with approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Reduces Penalties for Possession Crimes

The Biden Administration has been using a long-said rhetoric throughout their call for the DEA to reschedule cannabis – no one deserves to be in jail over a plant, it’s that simple.

“Look folks no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana. Period,” the president said in the video published with their announcement on X. “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

Rightly, his tweet also pointed out that right now, cannabis is classified as more dangerous than fentanyl and methamphetamine, which are driving the overdose epidemic within the U.S. over the last decade or longer.

As a Schedule I drug, just possession of cannabis can still technically land you a federal felony with a prison sentence of up to 10 years, confinement in jail for up to twelve months, and/or a fine of up to $2500. By moving it to Schedule III, the possession charge would be considered a federal misdemeanor, punishable with up to twelve months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2500.

Often, unless there are violent charges accompanying the possession charges – or other substances are involved – the sentence on lesser charges will come down to a fine rather than jail time.

Eases Financial Burden and Dangers for Businesses

The last—and possibly most impactful change for the state-legal industries, both medicinal and adult-use—is that this will mean businesses are no longer subject to astronomically insane tax rates.They will also be able to take regular business deductions for the first time ever, which will likely translate into a significant revenue increase for most businesses.

Along with eased federal tax rates, easing restrictions may make many financial institutions more likely to work with cannabis-based businesses. This could open up a plethora of options that the industry has had to provide for itself over the years, including simple checking and savings accounts, working capital, business loans, and much more.

It also reduces the need for cash-only sales, which is still a theme for many small businesses that can’t afford expensive industry-specific payment processing options. This increases safety for business owners and their employees alike.

Will Reclassification Happen Before the November Election – Or Will It Be a Playing Card for Candidates?

Considering one of the promises the Biden Administration made early on was rescheduling cannabis, we can hope that they will keep the pressure on the DEA to not drag out the process with spaced out hearings. It’s also likely going to be one of their main focal points throughout their campaign preparing for the upcoming presidential election in November.

Originally, the administration promised a move to Schedule II, so this is actually a case where the government under-promised and over-delivered – but why?

Because they knew it was simpler to do this, than make the real change that’s necessary – removing cannabis from the CSA all together and leaving it up to each state how to proceed on regulation or putting in general restrictions in the same fashion that alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

This is a long awaited change – but just like cannabis reform at a state level it’s really only tackling half the problem. It may be preventing many negative impacts in the future, but there still needs to be legislation passed swiftly afterward to reduce or pardon current convictions and release those who are wrongfully still sitting behind bars.

The work doesn’t end when cannabis is moved to Schedule III – but it’s a start, and it’s a better start than we’ve had since the plant was made illegal generations ago. It’s still recognition that years of activism are paying off, a step forward that shows the government is ready to recognize the medicinal value of cannabis and is finally seeing the wave of negative impacts that prohibition has caused.

Let's hope the government doesn't waste more time than it has to, and we can be celebrating a few months from now when the DEA makes this change official.

Julia Granowicz-Johnson is a founder, copywriter, and journalism blogger with a passion for the cannabis plant and its uses in personal wellness and medicine. She advocates for the reform of cannabis laws around the globe through her writing and aims to bring attention to the negative impacts that prohibition has left in its wake.