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HHS completes review of rescheduling cannabis

Decision still looms on dropping drug from Schedule I to Schedule III

Hemant Shahi smokes marijuana during an October 2022 rally with cannabis activists outside the White House.
Hemant Shahi smokes marijuana during an October 2022 rally with cannabis activists outside the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Department of Health and Human Services completed its review of rescheduling cannabis and sent a recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agencies confirmed. 

Bloomberg News reported that HHS recommended demoting the drug from Schedule I to Schedule III, but neither agency would confirm details. The recommendation is nonbinding, and the DEA will make the final decision. 

“We can confirm DEA received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services providing its findings and recommendation on marijuana scheduling, pursuant to President Biden’s request for a review,” the DEA said in a statement.

“This administrative process was completed in less than 11 months, reflecting this department’s collaboration and leadership to ensure that a comprehensive scientific evaluation be completed and shared expeditiously,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement.

Schedule I drugs are considered to have no medical purpose and high potential for abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and LSD. Schedule III drugs, by contrast, are considered less addictive and harmful, and include drugs like ketamine and testosterone.

HHS’ recommendation follows an October request from President Joe Biden when he moved to expunge convictions related to marijuana possession.

Recommending rescheduling would reverse the department’s prior stance — most recently detailed in 2016 — that cannabis should remain on Schedule I. Placing cannabis on Schedule III would also go further than the American Medical Association’s previous recommendation to place the drug on Schedule II, where it can be more easily accessed for research.

Demoting the drug will hardly resolve the divide between the federal government and states, which are increasingly embracing broader access. Scheduled drugs require prescriptions and approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which would create a regulatory morass for the flourishing cannabis market. 

That’s why marijuana advocates have urged Congress and the administration to remove marijuana from the federal drug schedule altogether. But questions about safety have hamstrung efforts so far.  

“This is a step in the right direction but it is not sufficient,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “I hope it is followed by more significant reforms. This is long overdue.”

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