In 2020, when Biden campaigned for President, he promised to expunge prison records and decriminalize marijuana. He acknowledged that arrests and imprisonment affect Black and Latinx communities at a disproportionate rate. In August 2023, it was reported that the Department of Health and Human Services recommended moving marijuana to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). But this will not decriminalize marijuana as he promised. Now, the Drug Enforcement Administration is reviewing this recommendation and will make its own determination. President Biden must call on Congress to pass marijuana legislation that would completely remove marijuana from the CSA to decriminalize it. He must also pursue executive actions, now, that will end and repair the harms of marijuana criminalization.
President Biden rightly called marijuana criminalization a failure. However, rescheduling marijuana would continue this failure. As long as it remains under the CSA, people could be threatened by federal criminal penalties.
The CSA regulates certain drugs under existing federal law into one of five schedules. As a result of its placement on the CSA, marijuana is criminalized. Marijuana is a “Schedule 1” drug. This means that the U.S. government has labeled marijuana as a drug with a high abuse risk. They claim it has no safe, accepted medical use. We know from research and anecdotal experience that people find many benefits to using marijuana.
Moving marijuana to a less harsh schedule, such as Schedule III, under the CSA would officially acknowledge the medical benefits of marijuana. However, medical and adult use in legal states would still be illegal under federal law. There would still be stiff penalties for personal use and selling marijuana without a license. This includes mandatory minimum sentences. Noncitizens could still be deported simply for working in the marijuana industry, even in legal states. People could still be denied assistance for housing and food if they have a previous conviction.
President Biden recognizes that criminalizing marijuana has harmed lives, especially in Black and brown communities. But moving marijuana to Schedule III alone cannot undo the damage caused by decades of federal prohibition.
President Biden must take meaningful action to end federal marijuana criminalization. He must: