Two U.S. senators recently sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. In the letter, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called on Garland to remove cannabis from the nation’s list of drugs regulated under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
“Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level via this descheduling process would allow states to regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws and facilitate valuable medical research,” Warren and Booker wrote in their October 6 letter to Garland. “While Congress works to pass comprehensive cannabis reform, you can act now to decriminalize cannabis.”
The Democratic senators wrote that under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Garland has the authority to “remove a substance from the CSA’s list, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).” Booker and Warren said that the move would be in line with public opinion, noting that 91 percent of American adults support legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The senators’ letter also notes that more than two-thirds of the states have initiated cannabis reform, with 36 legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. Of them, 18 have also passed laws that legalize cannabis for adult use. The reforms have come without a spike in traffic accidents, violent crime, or use by teenagers “paving the way for much-needed action at the federal level.”
Racial Inequality and the War on Drugs
Warren and Booker also cited data from the American Civil Liberties Union that showed that Black Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of usage among the groups. The effects of the disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws include not only arrest, prosecution and incarceration, but also collateral damage such as the loss of jobs, housing, eligibility for financial aid, child custody and immigration status.
“Federal cannabis policy has disproportionately affected the ability of people of color in the United States to vote, to pursue education, and to build intergenerational wealth,” Booker and Warren maintain. “You can begin to repair the harm that the criminalization of cannabis has wrought on communities of color by using your statutory and regulatory authority to deschedule this drug.”
The senators also noted in their letter that legalization will facilitate cannabis as a treatment option for serious medical conditions including chronic pain, PTSD and terminal illnesses. Noting that federal agencies including the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have acknowledged that THC and CBD have proven medical applications, Warren and Booker argued that the decriminalization of “cannabis is crucial to facilitating scientific research and would be invaluable to doctors and patients across the nation.”
Summing up their rationale for marijuana policy reform, Booker and Warren urged “the DOJ to initiate the process to decriminalize cannabis.”
“Doing so would be an important first step in the broader tasks of remedying the harmful racial impact of our nation’s enforcement of cannabis laws and ensuring that states can effectively regulate the growing cannabis industry, including by assisting small business owners and those most harmed by our historical enforcement of cannabis laws,” they continued.
Keeping a Campaign Promise
Rescheduling cannabis under the CSA or removing it from the list entirely by action from Garland and the executive branch would allow the Biden administration to follow through on pledges to reform marijuana policy during the 2020 presidential campaign. While running for office, President Joe Biden promised to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.”
In an April press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Biden’s support for cannabis reform at the federal level. But she noted that the president prefers marijuana decriminalization over full legalization.
“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states; rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts; and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” Psaki told reporters. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana.”
Critics, however, say Biden’s stance on cannabis is behind the times.
“His policy on marijuana is a very antiquated one, very out of date,” Martiza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Portland Press Herald. “I think that’s just his personal belief. If he were persuaded by science, the science tells us that marijuana does have positive therapeutic and medical effects, but he still seems very reluctant to just embrace it.”