Last week, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon all Americans federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana. The announcement was a welcome, though limited, shift in the U.S. government’s seemingly unending war on drugs. Biden additionally called on governors to follow suit in their respective states and grant clemency to the vast majority of offenders convicted under state laws. He also encouraged Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra to review marijuana’s classification under federal law.
But that shift may be easier said than done thanks to the age-old problem of federal bureaucracy.
Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, indicating “a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” In his announcement last week, the president noted that this puts it in the same category as heroin and a more restrictive category than fentanyl.
In 2015, the last time the government assessed marijuana’s classification, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and HHS recommended keeping it at Schedule I. The assessment included, among other factors, “the scientific literature on whether marijuana has a currently accepted medical use”—a tall order since Schedule I status makes it much more difficult to study in the first place.
The Washington Post reported today that “such an evaluation—the first initiated by a U.S. president—is made all the more difficult due to tight restrictions on research into marijuana.” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a research institute within the National Institutes of Health, told the paper, “It’s something that we constantly communicate: We really need to figure out a way of doing research with these substances.”
In other words, as Scott Lincicome of the Cato Institute tweeted, the government “can’t research whether marijuana should remain a ‘Schedule I’ substance bc of govt restrictions on… researching Schedule I substances.”