Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a very clear disdain for weed, so any time a headline combines "Sessions" and "cannabis," a shock wave goes through the legal weed industry. Last month, news broke that a "Sessions task force will review DOJ cannabis enforcement," and a lot of people are wondering what that could mean.
It turns out, the task force is not about cannabis specifically—it's a task force to study crime reduction and public safety, but it will include "a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana," according to a memo Sessions sent.
If we take the memo at face value, Sessions is asking for "expertise" and "recommendations" from a "variety of subcommittees," and I can't help but have a glimmer of hope that someone on one of those subcommittees suggests one simple tweak to existing law: changing cannabis's status as a Schedule I controlled substance. Pull pot off the Schedule I list, and suddenly federal cannabis policy becomes much more sensible.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, a unit of Sessions's Department of Justice, categorizes drugs in multiple tiers according to their alleged dangers and possible medical uses. Cannabis currently joins heroin and ecstasy in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, meaning the federal government considers cannabis has no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Which is crazy, especially considering cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone are considered less dangerous Schedule II drugs.
Rescheduling cannabis to a less restrictive tier of the Controlled Substances Act would change the way millions of cannabis users and business people interact with the federal government.
Lowering it to Schedule II would make it much easier for scientists to study the plant. The Schedule I category makes it extremely difficult for scientists to study any aspect of cannabis, which means scientists know very little about a product that millions of Americans use every day. That's bad for public health, regardless of whether or not you support people smoking pot. Restricting research is also a terrible idea given how much promise there is in the therapeutic effects of cannabis. It's beyond a shadow of a doubt that cannabis has a medical value for certain types of seizure disorders.
Pot's Schedule I status also ties the hands of state lawmakers. States like Washington have been able to walk the tightrope of setting up regulatory systems for common-sense pot laws, but the DEA's scheduling of cannabis makes that job extremely difficult. If Sessions is a true conservative, he ought to see the value in having states work as the "laboratories of democracy."
More than four years have passed since Colorado and Washington legalized pot, and the sky has not fallen on our democracy—instead, our state has gone from locking people up for selling pot to collecting tax revenue from people buying it. But the scheduling status has made the playing field for capitalism's market forces profoundly uneven. Unfortunately, criminalization of pot had an overwhelming impact on people of color, while legalization has been a windfall predominately for white people. There are very few minorities profiting off this legal pot gold rush.
If you want to open a pot business right now, you must have access to a lot of cash. Lines of credit and loans are rarely handed out by banks to cannabis businesses because the banks have been given no guarantee that they won't be charged with money laundering for working with a business that sells a Schedule I substance.
Running a cannabis business is also extremely costly because the IRS won't let these businesses deduct most of the expenses from their operations. That's because pot businesses are working with a Schedule I substance, so they end up paying a much higher effective tax rate than any other business. But that law applies only to Schedule I and Schedule II drugs. If cannabis dropped to Schedule III, suddenly it would be much cheaper to run a pot shop, allowing a more diverse pool of ownership to enter the industry.
The DEA does not have sole control of how drugs are scheduled in the Controlled Substances Act, and the Food and Drug Administration must sign off on any change, but leadership from the Department of Justice would go a long way in making rescheduling happen. Sessions expects to publish his review and recommendations in late July. Now is the time to encourage your elected representatives to put pressure on the Department of Justice.