Drug Policy Alliance Charges Biden Admin Decision to ‘Reschedule’ Pot Good Start, But Not Good Enough, Especially for Communities of Color

By Shaolien Chen-Graf

WASHINGTON DC — Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) announced this week the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is proposing rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III drug, rather than decriminalizing it.

In a statement, DPA explains that while rescheduling marijuana would shift it from the most restrictive class of controlled substances to a less restrictive class, “marijuana criminalization would continue at the federal level and most penalties, including those for simple possession, would continue as long as marijuana remains anywhere on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).”

For instance, “under a Schedule III classification, people with marijuana-related convictions could still lose access to federal housing and food benefits, or even face deportation,” explains the DPA.

In addition, the DPA underscores how the criminalization of marijuana disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities who have historically been targeted and criminalized by law enforcement.

Pointing to a study by the ACLU that found more than 80 percent of people sentenced for federal marijuana charges were Black or Latino, the statement notes “maintaining federal criminalization in any form will perpetuate racially discriminatory policing and enforcement.”

As a result, the DEA’s proposal to reschedule marijuana falls short of the promises to decriminalize marijuana and expunge related criminal records that President Biden made in his 2020 campaign, the statement said, adding, “the DEA’s proposal would leave most of the harms and racial disparities associated with criminalization unaddressed.”

This sentiment is shared by Cat Packer, Director of Drug Markets and Legal Regulation, who said “supporting federal marijuana decriminalization means supporting the removal of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, not changing its scheduling.”

Packer adds Black communities have “borne the brunt of our country’s racist enforcement of marijuana laws” and that rescheduling marijuana “is not a policy solution for federal marijuana criminalization or its harms, and it won’t address the disproportionate impact that it has had on Black and Brown communities.”

The DPA statement notes Packer is not alone in wanting marijuana to be decriminalized on a federal level, maintaining, “Policymakers, health professionals and criminal justice advocates agree that marijuana must be removed from the CSA and coupled with comprehensive Congressional legislative reform to address racial disparities, reduce harm, and move toward a federal marijuana policy and regulatory framework that benefits all communities.”

The statement also highlights a Data for Progress Poll that stated, “A majority of American voters support marijuana legalization and comprehensive reform. “In addition, the release underscores that 38 states have laws that allow for medical cannabis use and 24 allow for adult recreational use.”

According to the DPA’s release, descheduling (removing marijuana from the CSA) has also received significant support in Congress, with “Representatives Blumenauer (D-OR), Joyce (R-OH), Lee (D-CA), and Mast (R-FL) leading their Congressional colleagues in two letters (in December 2022 and October 2023) to the DEA calling for descheduling marijuana, and Senator Warren (D-MA) leading eleven of her colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-OH), urging President Biden’s Administration to remove marijuana from the CSA.”

Highlighting this congressional support for the decriminalization of marijuana the DPA’s press release included statements from multiple members of congress.

“While the rescheduling of marijuana is a historic step in the right direction, anything short of descheduling falls woefully short of remedying the harms of the current system and the failed racist War on Drugs,” said Rep. Lee.

“Rescheduling would allow for the criminal penalties for recreational and medical marijuana use to continue – disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. The criminalization of marijuana is also increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion. We need full descheduling and to pass the MORE Act – which I proudly co-lead – as a solution for equitable comprehensive marijuana reform rooted in racial and restorative justice,” Rep. Lee notes.

“Descheduling marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act is not just a social justice issue; it’s an economic, medical, and public safety issue. Since marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance during the war on drugs, countless lives have been torn apart, and individuals in primarily Black and brown communities have been targeted for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY).

Gillibrand added, “Studies show that legalizing marijuana could help reduce violence in international drug trafficking and generate billions of dollars for the economy. The vast majority of Americans agree that marijuana should be legalized – that’s why I’m calling on the Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Administration to swiftly deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.” 

According to Rep. Jerry Nadler (NY), “While rescheduling marijuana is an important step, we must go further.  It is time to end the prohibition and criminalization of marijuana at the federal level.  That’s why I have introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or the MORE Act, which would not only decriminalize marijuana under federal law, but it would also expunge federal marijuana convictions and encourage states to do the same.”

Rep. Nadler argued, “The bill would also establish a fund to support programs assisting those communities who were most directly harmed by the War on Drugs and ensure that they have equal access to the benefits of decriminalization.”

These statements of support are part of an ambitious outreach effort on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance and its coalition partners at United for Marijuana Decriminalization (UMD) to encourage community members to tell President Biden and the DEA that marijuana must be descheduled.

DPA and UMD’s plan, they said, is for members of the public to submit comments in support of descheduling marijuana –fully removing it from the CSA–once the public comment period for the DEA’s proposal is open. According to the release, this effort by the DPA, fellow advocates, and Congressional leaders is aimed at ending marijuana criminalization and creating marijuana laws that are “grounded in health, safety, and racial equity.”

While the release stresses the importance of descheduling, it also points out that marijuana reform can take place through Executive Orders and Congressional legislation.

“President Biden can come closer to fulfilling his promise to end marijuana criminalization by taking immediate action to mitigate the harms of marijuana prohibition in people’s lives,” explains the DPA’s press release.

Keeping in line with President Biden’s campaign promises, the release states that Congressional legislation should “provide relief from previous marijuana convictions, restore rights and benefits to people impacted by marijuana criminalization” and “reinvest in communities disproportionately harmed by criminal enforcement.”

 DPA urged legislation that creates a regulatory framework rooted in equity, public health, and safety, and points to the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, and the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) as comprehensive and viable solutions that should be adopted.

About The Author

Shaolien Chen-Graf is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying Sociology and minoring in Professional Writing. With hopes of pursuing a career as a writer for issues of social justice or simply within the NGO sector she is excited to hone her skills as a reporter and journalist. She currently advocates for reproductive justice as the Outreach Coordinator for Students for Reproductive Justice at UCSB, and promotes access to higher education through her role as a financial specialist for a nonprofit organization called CalSOAP. Shaolien is excited for the opportunity to witness the court system inaction and to draw attention to everyday injustices that are infringing on people's rights. In her free time she enjoys being out in nature, spending time with loved ones, and birdwatching.

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