Pres. Biden Formally Announces DOJ Will Move to Reclassify Cannabis

Thu, May 16

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would initiate the rulemaking process to reclassify cannabis in a way that recognizes its medical use.

The DOJ submitted a notice of public rulemaking on Thursday to the Federal Register to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, where it has been for more than 50 years. 

“This is monumental,” Biden said in a video posted on X. “It’s an important move toward reversing long standing inequities.”

In October 2022, Biden called on the DOJ and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to initiate a review of how the federal government classifies cannabis, and he announced that he would pardon all federal cannabis possession convictions. At the time, he said that it “makes no sense” that cannabis is in a stricter category than fentanyl, a point that Biden reiterated on Thursday.

Last August, HHS sent its recommendation for Schedule III to the DOJ, and in April the DOJ confirmed news reports that it would proceed with this recommendation. The submission of the proposed rule to the Federal Register on Thursday will kick off 60 days of public comment.

A crucial aspect of this process is how the DOJ went about its handling of HHS’ recommendation. Cannabis Wire first reported last month that Attorney General Merrick Garland had turned to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, that the OLC memo would be published alongside the notice of public rulemaking, and that the memo would require DEA to defer during public comment to HHS’ findings in support of Schedule III. 

This approach offers some protection from litigation and pushback, which is expected. Already, the biggest anti-legalization group in the U.S., Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has said it plans to fight the reclassification.

The OLC memo was indeed published on Thursday, and its key findings – including that HHS’s “scientific and medical determinations” must get “significant deference” during rulemaking – are referenced in the Federal Register notice.

Cannabis Wire also reported last month that the memo would confirm Schedule III does not run afoul of international drug treaties, a detail that is also included in the Federal Register notice.

This is a developing story and will be updated.