Congressman Pushes Attorney General to Reclassify Cannabis

Tennessee Congressman Steven Cohen is urging outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder to reclassify cannabis under federal law. Cohen, a Democrat, sent a letter to the Holder last week pressing him to remove the plant from its long-standing categorization as a Schedule I federally prohibited substance.

By definition, Schedule I substances must meet three specific criteria: “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and “a lack of accepted safety … under medical supervision.” Substances that do not meet all three criteria are required by law to be placed in some alternative schedule or removed from the Controlled Substances Act altogether (like alcohol and tobacco).

Holder has previously stated that he is open to debating the issue of rescheduling marijuana, telling news anchor Katie Couric in October that “whether or not marijuana is as serious a drug as is heroin … [is] certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” But he has also argued that this action ought to be taken by members of the US Congress, not via executive action. However, under federal law, the executive authority to reclassify controlled substances lies with the attorney general – a point that Congressman Cohen was quick to emphasize.

“First, as you know, you already have the statutory authority to reclassify marijuana,” Rep. Cohen wrote. “Second, I am interested to know what arguments against [the] reclassification of marijuana you believe could potentially outweigh those in favor of reclassification.”

Representative Cohen added: “Classifying cannabis as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act perpetuates an unjust and irrational system. Not even cocaine or methamphetamine are Schedule I substances. Moreover, President Obama has stated that he does not believe marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol.”

He concluded, “I urge you in your remaining time in office to take action, under existing federal law, to reclassify marijuana.”

Representative Cohen previously made headlines during a Congressional hearing when he repeatedly asked DEA Director Michelle Leonhart to respond to the question, “Would you agree that marijuana causes less harm to individuals than methamphetamine, crack, cocaine and heroin.” The DEA head steadfastly refused to answer.

Earlier this month, a federal judge for the Ninth Circuit heard closing arguments in a motion challenging the constitutionality of marijuana’s Schedule I classification. The case marked the first time since 1973 that a federal judge has weighed evidence in regard to whether there exists a “rational basis” for the government to maintain the plant’s prohibitive status as long as there remains any dispute among experts in regard to its safety and efficacy. (Separate rescheduling hearings, such as NORML v DEA, took place in administrative forums, not in criminal court.) The Judge is anticipated to rule on the matter by mid-March.

On Friday, members of Congress introduced HR 1013, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which seeks to remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act and removes enforcement power from the US Drug Enforcement Administration in matters concerning marijuana possession.

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