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Thursday, October 6, 2022

POTUS and Marijuana

From President Biden:

As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.

Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach.

First, I am announcing a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. I have directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals. There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.

Second, I am urging all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses. Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.

Third, I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.

Finally, even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place.

Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs. 
The Congressional Research Service finds that a president cannot directly decriminalize marijuana, but there is more to the story -- hence step three of the Biden announcement.

Either Congress or the executive branch has the authority to change the status of marijuana under the CSA [Controlled Substances Act]. Congress can change the status of a controlled substance through legislation: Congress included  marijuana in Schedule I by legislation when it enacted the CSA, and has more recently passed legislation to impose controls on other substances, including synthetic cannabinoids and fentanyl analogues. In the alternative, the CSA empowers DEA to make scheduling decisions through the notice-and-commentrulemaking process, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (HHS has delegated its factfinding role in this process to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)). The CSA provision directing DEA to schedule controlled substances as “required by United States obligations under international treaties” may limit the agency’s authority to relax controls of marijuana; another CRS report discusses considerations for Congress related to marijuana’s status under international drug control treaties.
If the President sought to act in the area of controlled substances regulation, he would likely do so by executive order. However, the Supreme Court has held that the President has the power to issue an executive order only if authorized by “an act of Congress or . . . the Constitution itself.” The CSA does not provide a direct role for the President in the classification of controlled substances, nor does Article II of the Constitution grant the President power in this area (federal controlled substances law is an exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce). Thus, it does not appear that the President could directly deschedule or reschedule marijuana by executive order.
Although the President may not unilaterally deschedule or reschedule a controlled substance, he does possess a large degree of indirect influence over scheduling decisions. The President could pursue the appointment of agency officials who favor descheduling, or use executive orders to direct DEA, HHS, and FDA to consider administrative descheduling of marijuana. The notice-and-comment rulemaking process would take time, and would be subject to judicial review if challenged, but could be done consistently with the CSA’s procedural requirements. In the alternative, the President could work with Congress to pursue descheduling through an amendment to the CSA.