DOJ Advances Plan to Classify Marijuana as Less Dangerous Drug

(Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department formally started the procedure of classifying marijuana as a less dangerous substance, moving toward a major change in US drug policy.

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The agency submitted a rulemaking notice on Thursday to shift marijuana’s legal status to Schedule III from Schedule I, the first step in what could be a lengthy process. A 60-day public comment period will begin, after which the Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department will make a final decision whether to remove marijuana from the list of the most-dangerous drugs.

President Joe Biden said in a video posted to social media that the notification was “an important move towards reversing longstanding inequities.”

“Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana and I’m committed to righting those wrongs,” Biden said.

The MJ PurePlay 100 Index, which tracks the cannabis industry, rose as much as 6.1% in its best intraday gain since April 30.

The notice advances the Biden administration’s goal of easing marijuana policy in order to align it more with the public as more Americans support legalizing the drug. Almost six in 10 Americans said marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational purposes, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in March.

The move comes at a critical time for Biden, who is trailing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump ahead of the November election in a half dozen battleground states, according to an April Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll. Biden is appealing to young and non-White voters who helped elect him in 2020, but have since drifted from his coalition. Those groups generally favor less strict drug laws.

Still, reclassifying marijuana will not decriminalize it, and there are still many steps to go before the move is finalized.

The Department of Health and Human Services endorsed rescheduling earlier this year, but the DEA “has not yet made a determination as to its views of the appropriate schedule for marijuana,” according to the notice.

The notice follows a plan announced last month by Attorney General Merrick Garland to change the drug’s categorization.

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In 2016, the DEA denied a petition to reconsider marijuana’s status. Since then, the potency of the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, has increased, and use of marijuana has risen.

The agency anticipates that new methods of consuming marijuana, such as vaping, and the potency “may be appropriate for consideration” when making a decision, the notice said. The DEA will also weigh seizures of marijuana by law enforcement and cannabis-related hospitalizations.

The last data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2022 found that 61.9 million people had used marijuana in the last year, while 42.3 million people had used it in the last month, including 14.7 million who had vaped the substance. Around half of the 3.7 million people who had used the drug for the first time that year had started before the age of 21, according to the report.

A lobbying group for the marijuana industry, the US Cannabis Council, praised the decision, calling a rescheduling “a tectonic shift away from the failed policies of the last 50 years” and adding that the move would be a “critical step” toward its ultimate goal of full federal legalization.

--With assistance from Chris Strohm and Ike Swetlitz.

(Updates with market reaction, political context and details on DEA beginning in fifth paragraph)

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