Rescheduling is Not Legalization, and the Existing Penalties for Cannabis Remain Unchanged

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Indian Voices Newspaper
May 28, 2024

Photo: Prison Cells, Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, by Dietmar Rabich, Wikimedia Commons

Rescheduling Is Not Legalization, And The Existing Penalties For Cannabis Remain Unchanged

In October of 2022, President Biden made a series of historic cannabis-related executive actions, including initiating a review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice on how cannabis is scheduled under federal law. In August 2023, HHS recommended rescheduling cannabis from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III drug and referred it to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for final approval.

Today, the DEA announced its decision to approve the HHS recommendation to reschedule cannabis to Schedule III. The proposal now goes to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to review the rule. If approved by OMB, the proposed rescheduling would go to public comment before being finalized.

This historic announcement is the culmination of years of advocacy by Last Prisoner Project (LPP) and other advocacy groups to push the federal government to better reflect the public’s view on cannabis. While the move is undoubtedly a step forward for the movement, it does not meet LPP’s goal to fully remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and its associated criminal penalties.

So then, what exactly does this schedule change mean for cannabis justice reform?

While the action could result in some favorable tax and banking reform for the cannabis industry and more dedicated research for cannabis patients, there are no changes in how the criminal legal system punishes cannabis users. Rescheduling is a peripheral change that signals the reevaluation of cannabis, but not the release of cannabis prisoners or relief for those who continue to be burdened by the lasting consequences of the carceral system. In short, this announcement represents progress but not justice.

Despite not achieving full legalization, we must use this historic moment to push the fight for cannabis justice forward by broadening the scope of Biden’s cannabis clemency action, working with Congress and certain administrative agencies to both provide retroactive relief and to reduce prospective cannabis criminal enforcement, and incentivizing states to provide broad retroactive relief, particularly in states that have adopted a fully legal cannabis market. Learn more about ways cannabis justice advocates can leverage this change to advance reforms in our recent memo.

LPP is committed to continuing the fight for cannabis justice until everyone is fully free from the harms of the War on Drugs. This means advocating for cannabis to be fully descheduled. To ensure we keep the pressure on descheduling, retroactive relief, and full legalization, Last Prisoner Project helped organize the largest bipartisan group of cannabis advocates in Washington D.C. on April 18th, 2024 for our 420 Unity Day of Action to urge Congress and the President to take further action.

Last Prisoner Project believes that complete descheduling is a necessary step towards correcting past injustices and creating a fair and equitable criminal legal system. We will continue to leverage the momentum achieved from our advocacy to ensure that individuals burdened with past cannabis conviction shave their records expunged and all cannabis prisoners are released, regardless of the federal scheduling decision.