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By Kyle Jaeger
The White House drug czar says that the president’s marijuana pardons and scheduling directive last year are part of an effort to create cohesive cannabis policy within a patchwork of state legalization models.
At a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on Thursday, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Rahul Gupta was asked to share his perspective on the disconnect between federal prohibition and the normalization of marijuana use in jurisdictions that have enacted legalization.
Rep. William Timmons (R-SC) said that “it seems that a lot of our cities across the country are not really holding people accountable” or enforcing criminal code—and he said that cannabis enforcement trends represent a “great example.”
“You walk down the street in Georgetown with a beer or glass of wine, you’re gonna get an open container ticket,” he said, referencing a Washington, D.C. neighborhood. “But if you want to go smoke marijuana at [Wisconsin Ave. and M St.], ‘knock it out.'”
“Marijuana is federally illegal, and the fact that we have this nebulous enforcement mechanism where, in South Carolina, you go to jail—or smoke it in the military, you get kicked out—I mean, we’re failing,” the congressman said. “We’re failing at creating a structure through which our society can thrive, and it’s causing problems.”
Gupta responded by saying that “this is exactly why the president last fall took these actions to make sure that people in federal system who are for simple possession of marijuana are pardoned because it’s about their life beyond that.”
He added that President Joe Biden’s call for governors to follow suit with state-level cannabis relief and directive for an administrative review into the federal scheduling of marijuana are also part of the strategy to resolve the types of policy conflicts that Timmons described.
The pardons that Biden issued in October only affected people who committed federal cannabis possession offenses up until the day he signed the directive—and marijuana remains federally illegal—so it’s not clear how that would meaningfully affect the kind of enforcement issues that the congressman raised, despite Gupta’s response.
If the scheduling review that’s being carried out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) does result in the descheduling of marijuana, however, that could go a long way toward encouraging additional states to end cannabis criminalization while setting up the federal government to potentially enact uniform regulations.
At last week’s Oversight hearing, Timmons followed up with Gupta by pointing out that he’s a captain with the South Carolina National Guard, and “we regularly remove people from the military for smoking marijuana.”
Yet, “you can’t walk a block in D.C. without smelling somebody smoking it,” he said. “So I mean, we need to get our policies in line with carrots and sticks and need to have nuances to achieve our objective.”
Later in the meeting, Gupta clarified in response to a question from Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) that the president’s pardon action was “backdated” for people with prior cannabis convictions, and there’s a “mechanism that the Board of Justice has to go through to get those records removed.”
Meanwhile, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said last week that she plans to “keep an open mind” as they await the scientific review from HHS.
When the agency does receive the scheduling recommendation from HHS, it will then carry out its own eight-factor analysis and open public comment before making the final call.
While Milgram said that health officials haven’t provided a specific timeline for its review, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra did tell Marijuana Moment last month that it’s his hope that the agencies of jurisdiction will be able to complete their work by the year’s end, but it remains to be seen if that will happen.
Meanwhile, Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer led a letter to Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland in March, alongside 15 other bipartisan members of Congress, demanding transparency in the cannabis scheduling review.