This year is shaping up to potentially be one of the most historic when it comes to cannabis, as U.S. advocates and consumers alike await the final decision from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on whether it will reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I to Schedule III controlled substance.
After the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made its recommendation to the DEA in December 2023, the collective excitement for a final decision is palpable. There has even been a recent wave of rumors that the White House could make an announcement about the pending review in the coming days, though a Biden administration official denied any pending announcements for the upcoming week.
As the wait continues, a number of advocates and legislators are arguing that simply moving cannabis to another category is not enough and pushing to deschedule cannabis entirely. Among those leaders is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who appeared on The Late Show earlier this week to discuss her stance.
Leading the Push to Deschedule Cannabis
After a segment focusing on the economy and inflation, host Stephen Colbert pivoted to address a letter from last week led by Warren and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), along with nine other Democrats including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) among others.
The letter urges the DEA and Biden administration to deschedule cannabis altogether, recognizing that rescheduling to Schedule III would be a “significant step forward” but would not resolve the “worst harms of the current system.”
“Thus, the DEA should deschedule marijuana altogether. Marijuana’s placement in the CSA has had a devastating impact on our communities and is increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion,” the legislators said in the letter dated Jan. 30.
“Last week you, Sen. Fetterman, Sen. Schumer and Sen. Sanders sent a letter to the DEA asking for marijuana to be descheduled. How is that different?” Colbert posed. “Two part question — How is that different from legalization, and are you high right now?”
After laughs from the audience, Warren said that cannabis legalization would be possible with a “functional Congress,” adding that this is “not the world we live in.” Descheduling, she argued, is an alternative that doesn’t require Congressional approval.
“Right now marijuana is scheduled, it’s called, as a drug by the DEA at the same risk as heroin,” Warren said. “And that means not only is it illegal, you can’t even do research on it. It’s, so no — and what we’re saying in this letter is, ‘Guys get with it,’ at the DEA. It’s not 1954. More than half of all states have legalized marijuana.”
Research on cannabis is still possible with its current scheduling, though it has historically come with a number of obstacles that have been long criticized as barriers to opening up more cannabis-related studies.
Descheduling vs. Rescheduling Cannabis
Descheduling cannabis would effectively remove its status as a controlled substance, thereby removing criminal penalties and essentially legalizing it. Congress would still be needed to establish a regulatory framework, and it would likely be treated similar to alcohol, with states allowed to form their own cannabis laws. Federal law and regulation could also play a part to some degree.
Rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III would keep it as a controlled substance, and it would not federally legalize cannabis or allow states to facilitate their own markets. It would, however, remove research barriers and allow cannabis businesses licensed by the state to take federal tax deductions, which is currently not allowed.
While rescheduling alone would not enable the shift, many have also expressed concern that moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III would open the door for Big Pharma to seize the market.
“The idea is to say, at the federal level, instead of creating this conflict, which is causing all kinds of problems—we’ve got problems with banking laws and problems in tax laws—you just say deschedule,” Warren said. “And look, we need some restrictions. Of course, let’s treat it like alcohol. We need to deschedule it, join the 21st century and let’s make marijuana legal. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
The declaration was met with applause, followed by Colbert’s jest, “I want to point out you didn’t answer my second question.” Warren exchanged a grin back to the host as Colbert ended the segment.
The full clip can be viewed here.