Biden Admin Is ‘Mischaracterizing’ Marijuana Rescheduling Impact As Big Pharma Is ‘Waiting In The Wings,’ Former Massachusetts Regulator Says

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Tue, Jun 11
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“We have to understand that with federal legalization…there are precautions we’ll want to take.”

By Jennifer Smith, CommonWealth Beacon

The Biden administration is reconsidering the long-standing federal hardline stance on cannabis, ushering in pardons for marijuana-based offenses and proposing reclassifying the drug.

While proponents of social equity in the marijuana industry are cheering the sentiment, they say these more lenient federal gestures, which are silent on established state cannabis regulations, could create confusion.

They also have a new concern: tobacco and alcohol industries big-footing into the market.

“The word of caution is that at this point, because it’s federally illegal, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies are not involved,” said Shaleen Title, a former member of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission and now founder and director of the Parabola Center for Law and Policy think tank. “They have been waiting in the wings. So we have to understand that with federal legalization, that will change and there are precautions we’ll want to take.”

Title jumped from Massachusetts cannabis regulation to federal policy work at the end of 2020, joining a coalition of drug policy experts and lawyers pushing for substantial marijuana reform. She discussed the Bay State’s evolution on cannabis policy and its place in an increasingly complex state-federal cannabis environment on an episode of The Horse Race podcast co-hosted by Commonwealth Beacon reporter Jennifer Smith and MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela.

A federal move to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—redefining it from a substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse to one with a medical use and moderate to low potential for abuse—prompted mixed responses from advocates.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Florida NPR station WGCU that the move is “a recommendation based on science and evidence,” adding “it does make sense to make sure that we’re pursuing science and evidence when it comes to medications and use those medications for Americans with chronic illnesses, chronic pain, diseases like cancer.”

But Title said the administration is “mischaracterizing” the rescheduling proposal by making it seem like a straightforward shift, when there are still many unanswered questions about how the change would impact prescription access and production—let alone interact with states that have regulations managing both recreational and medicinal cannabis.

The proposal is “completely out of line with what states are doing,” she said. “It does not legalize anything about state programs.”

The federal policy tilt, she said, prompted Parabola to “take a step back and look at what people actually want when it comes to legalization. And in particular, I think it’s really important to understand that different policies will benefit different groups of people.”

Title said she came to the conclusion that Massachusetts could “do a much better job” on worker protections prior to a new Parabola survey, but respondent priorities reinforced her view. Of those surveyed, 73 percent said cannabis legalization should benefit workers in the cannabis industry. A Bay State cannabis worker suffered an asthma attack at a Holyoke processing facility and died in 2022.

The survey of 404 American adults was initially intended to be an internal Parabola tool to test education messaging on cannabis views, Title said, but the organization decided to release it publicly to highlight a few trends.

Respondents said they generally trusted people who use marijuana and work toward social equity to guide policy—about 55 percent—and trusted tobacco and alcohol industry executives 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Similarly, 28 percent of respondents said that cannabis legalization should benefit tobacco companies and 19 percent said it should benefit alcohol companies.

When it comes to the enormous tobacco and alcohol industries, any moves into the cannabis space could be substantial. In 2023, reports surfaced that the tobacco company Philip Morris was set to acquire the Israeli-based cannabis inhaler company Syqe Medical for up to $650 million, and international tobacco companies have been previewing an expansion into the cannabis business for years.

The risk, in Title’s view, is not just that corporate entities could suck up profit from communities impacted by the drug war, including people of color and indigenous people.

“The risks of public health concerns rise when we get large corporations involved as well,” she said. “So we’re seeing potency rising, we’re seeing a focus on profit where the most heavy users tend to be catered to. And all of those problems would be exacerbated when larger corporations come in.”

Most Americans now live in a state that allows recreational cannabis use or medical cannabis use, with 79 percent of the population living in a county with at least one dispensary, according to a Pew Research Center review of state marijuana laws.

President Joe Biden in 2022 and 2023 pardoned several marijuana-related offenses under federal law, with the goal of lifting “barriers to housing, employment and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior offenses.”

The federal pardon, however, does not impact convictions under state laws. Though 24 states have legalized recreational marijuana use and another 14 allow medicinal use, the federal ban on cannabis products has led to a quagmire of state-by-state regulations.

States like California, New York and Massachusetts are well into an era of legalized cannabis, though the saturated market is leading to some paradoxical booms in unlicensed shops. Deep red states largely prohibit any cannabis products but CBD, a more benign marijuana byproduct that does not cause a high on its own.

Even with her eyes turned toward the federal system, Title thinks the Bay State can offer some tools for broader legalization.

“I think we learned in Massachusetts that prioritizing equity is really important,” she said. “We learned that loans and grants for people who can’t access capital was a major issue, and we’re only starting to straighten that out. We also learned that the way that cities and towns handle policy should be clear from the beginning. So those are all lessons we can take for federal legalization.”

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.