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US eyes easing restrictions on marijuana, but it’ll remain controlled substance

Canadian Evergreen, Media Partners

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will move to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, a historic shift to generations of American drug policy that could have wide ripple effects across the country.

The proposal, which still must be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, would recognize the medical uses of cannabis and acknowledge it has less potential for abuse than some of the nation’s most dangerous drugs. However, it would not legalize marijuana outright for recreational use.

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

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Once OMB signs off, the DEA will take public comment on the plan to move marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD. It moves pot to Schedule III, alongside ketamine and some anabolic steroids, following a recommendation from the federal Health and Human Services Department. After the public comment period and a review by an administrative judge, the agency would eventually publish the final rule.

“Today, the Attorney General circulated a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III,” Justice Department director of public affairs Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. “Once published by the Federal Register, it will initiate a formal rulemaking process as prescribed by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act.”

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Attorney General Merrick Garland’s signature throws the full weight of the Justice Department behind the move and appears to signal its importance to the Biden administration.

It comes after President Joe Biden called for a review of federal marijuana law in October 2022 and moved to pardon thousands of Americans convicted federally of simple possession of the drug. He has also called on governors and local leaders to take similar steps to erase marijuana convictions.

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

The election year announcement could help Biden, a Democrat, boost flagging support, particularly among younger voters.

Biden and a growing number of lawmakers from both major political parties have been pushing for the DEA decision as marijuana has become increasingly decriminalized and accepted, particularly by younger people. A Gallup poll last fall found 70 per cent of adults support legalization, the highest level yet recorded by the polling firm and more than double the roughly 30 per cent who backed it in 2000.

The DEA didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

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

Some critics argue the DEA shouldn’t change course on marijuana, saying rescheduling isn’t necessary and could lead to harmful side effects.

Jack Riley, a former deputy administrator of the DEA, said he had concerns about the proposed change because he thinks marijuana remains a possible “gateway drug,” one that may lead to the use of other drugs.

“But in terms of us getting clear to use our resources to combat other major drugs, that’s a positive,” Riley said, noting that fentanyl alone accounts for more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. a year.

On the other end of the spectrum, others argue marijuana should be treated the way alcohol is.

Late last month, 21 Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York sent a letter to Garland and DEA Administrator Anne Milgram arguing marijuana should be dropped from the controlled substances list and instead regulated like alcohol.

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