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Top Biden Health Official Hints At DEA Resistance To Marijuana Rescheduling Move

President Joe Biden’s health secretary is suggesting that federal drug enforcement officials are not necessarily on board with the administration’s plan to reschedule marijuana.

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Asked about the status of the proposed move of cannabis to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act at a recent event in Sacramento, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said his agency “took action” based on available science and evidence, saying that the ball is now in the Department of Justice’s court.

He dodged a follow-up question, however, about rumored pushback against the reform by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials.

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“We did our job,” Becerra said of the recommendation in an interview with KQED’s Scott Schafer at the CalMatters Ideas Festival on Thursday, adding that DEA “now has the final call to make that happen.”

“Is there resistance in DEA?” Schafer inquired.

“Talk to DEA,” answered Becerra, repeating: “We did our job.”

“I’m gonna take that as a yes,” Schafer replied.

“Our scientists reviewed the evidence,” Becerra responded. “FDA bases its action on the science and the evidence before us. We took action.”

During the interview, Schafer also asked Becerra whether he has “any concerns, as the father of three daughters—three children—you know, about the use of marijuana?”

“I have concerns when they get out and drive a car, or they go out at night and they’re over 21. I have lots of concerns,” Becerra said. “Thank God they’ve got great heads on their shoulders. And on something like cannabis, I think they would continue to have great heads on their shoulders.”

“Look, if my daughters could go out and buy a pint of whiskey or a menthol cigarette—we know what we’re up against,” he continued. “And let’s be real: You can’t incarcerate your way to a solution here. You can regulate it. And if you regulate it the right way, which we’re supposed to do for alcohol and cigarettes and all the rest, then we can manage it. But we have to make a decision.”

“More than half of the states have made a decision that they’d rather regulate this than criminalize it,” Becerra added of medical marijuana. “The U.S. FDA, the scientists, have spoken and said we should deschedule from Schedule I to Schedule III on cannabis.”

Becerra’s handling of the question about “resistance” at DEA comes amid ongoing speculation over the internal politics within the administration on marijuana rescheduling.

Indications that DEA might not be on board came alongside the rescheduling move itself, with the proposed rule in the Federal Register noting several times that the agency believes “additional information” needs to be collected via public comment or a possible administrative hearing could influence the final scheduling decision.

“DEA has not yet made a determination as to its views of the appropriate schedule for marijuana,” the document said.

Adding to questions about a possible disconnect between DOJ and DEA over the proposal is the fact that the attorney general, rather than the DEA administrator, signed the draft rule.

Even before the formal announcement, it had been reported that certain DEA officials had been “at odds” with the Biden administration over the rescheduling push.

A DEA official was also absent last week from a scheduled appearance to discuss marijuana policy and regulatory oversight issues for cannabinoid research.

The moderator of that panel said the DEA representative cancelled at the last moment. DEA did, however, issue a message to attendees that the agency’s “goal is to support researchers as they navigate this registration process” to study Schedule I drugs like cannabis, “and outreach is a key component of their model to provide that support,” according to the moderator.

The proposed rule to federally reschedule marijuana was officially posted last month, kicking off a public comment period that’s expected to elicit a major response from supporters and opponents of cannabis reform.

Marijuana reform advocates and stakeholders have made clear that they intend to leverage the opportunity, with some planning to support the reclassification and others intending to call for descheduling cannabis altogether. Prohibitionists are expected to oppose the incremental policy change and seek to keep marijuana in Schedule I, and there’s also a looming threat of litigation.

While DOJ will take all public comments submitted by July 22 into consideration as it weighs the reform, it said in the notice that one of the topics its especially interested in hearing about is the “unique economic impacts” of the rescheduling proposal given that state-level legalization has created a “multibillion dollar industry” that stands to benefit from possible federal tax relief under the reform.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues have reintroduced legislation to federally legalize cannabis and impose certain regulations.

The bill’s prospects are dubious in the current divided Congress, however.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat in the U.S. House said that the Biden administration’s move to reschedule marijuana is a “step in the right direction,” but it should be followed up with congressional action such as passing the legalization bill Schumer filed.

In a recent interview with Fox News, former DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said it “absolutely looks like” the agency will follow through with moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA.

Biden has separately issued two rounds of mass pardons for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses. Again, a Schedule III reclassification would not legalize cannabis or free people still incarcerated over cannabis.

During his run for the presidency, Biden pledged to move cannabis to Schedule II—a stricter category compared to what’s been proposed by his administration.

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