U.S. Drug Policy Director Discusses Impact of Cannabis Rescheduling

Dr. Rahul Gupta comments on the promising progress so far, as well as a misleading statement that rescheduling would have an impact on racial disparities.
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The Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP) director Dr. Rahul Gupta, often referred to as President Joe Biden’s appointed “drug czar,” spoke about the ongoing discussion of rescheduling cannabis.

In a recent interview with Star Tribune on May 24, which was originally featured in the news outlet’s free email newsletter, the first question inquired about Gupta’s “main takeaway” in regard to federal rescheduling. “We’ve had a policy for over half a century where so many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Gupta responded. “We’ve had so many people arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated. We know white, Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, but Black and brown incarceration rates are higher.”

He cited Biden’s October 2022 announcement to pursue pardoning cannabis offenses and instructing the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department (of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review the current schedule category that cannabis is positioned in. Now that request has been acted upon through the HHS in August 2023, with more recent moves suggesting progress within the Drug Enforcement Administration as well, Gupta commented on the importance of what happens next. “This is going to be really important to remove barriers to critical research and perhaps drug development, and it could also lead to more research into the benefits of medical marijuana,” he said. “Clearly this decision is going to have a historic and long-lasting impact.”

When asked if Gupta could offer clarity in how federal law enforcement will alter their prioritization of cannabis, he referred to other substances that are included in the Schedule III classification and thus have much lower priority, such as Tylenol with codeine and testosterone. “It will have an impact on racial disparity, incarceration and prosecutions,” he said. “And whether in Massachusetts or West Virginia or Texas, Americans should be able to get treatment for their condition.”

It’s important to note the differences between rescheduling cannabis and federally legalizing cannabis. Rescheduling cannabis doesn’t include approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that it can still lead to cannabis-related prosecution. Furthermore, the status of cannabis as a federally illegal substance means that incarcerations and prosecutions will continue if or when cannabis is rescheduled to a Schedule III substance.

In another interview between WGCU and Gupta published on May 20, he suggested that Schedule I substances have no approved medical use, but anything categorized between Schedule II-V “can be prescribed when appropriate by a licensed provider who has a DEA registration…” However, the FDA hasn’t approved cannabis as a medicine overall, just a few exceptions with drugs derived from cannabis.

The Star Tribune subject shifted to the topic of banking, but preferred to refer the question to others involved more closely in that discussion. “We do know the drugs that are Schedule III are in legitimate interstate commerce within the federal system. I’ll leave it to others to talk about the commercial process,” he said. “The focus for the president has been making sure Americans are able to get the help they need no matter where they live, and on the other side making sure we’re not [harming] people.”

One of the final questions in the interview asked that if a new president is elected later this year, how this entire process of rescheduling could be paused, canceled, or reversed. “The president has given the opportunity to Congress to take action; he did because he could wait no longer,” Gupta said. “The independent reviews of these agencies followed established processes and procedures in getting to this result. That process is driven through science. I can’t provide any hypothetical answers to what may happen. This is a change that is driven by policy, by science, by data, regardless of the political process.”

He concluded the interview by restating how the president is following through with his promise to help the people avoid being incarcerated. “The president has been very consistent: No one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana,” Gupta said. “These steps to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III is a policy that is consistent with science in the 21st century.”

Former ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske, who served under former President Barack Obama between 2009-2014, recently spoke on the podcast Sagely Speaking with Mary Bono on May 13. Kerlikowske’s response to Biden’s approach to rescheduling cannabis was more negative. “It’s not medicine. This is all Big Cannabis,” Kerlikowske said. “This isn’t people my age that are just old hippies that want to open up a pot shop somewhere. This is a huge business like Big Tobacco. Absolutely.”

He explained that the HHS decided not to reschedule cannabis due to no evidence of health three years ago, but now has changed its tune, with the DOJ expected to follow suit. Later on in the discussion, Kerlikowske compared the rise of cannabis to the rise of Big Tobacco.

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