There is no doubt these pardons will have a real world impact, improving housing access, job prospects and even the health of the roughly 6,500 individuals affected as well as their families. It may even inspire states—which account for hundreds of thousands of cannabis arrests each year—to revisit their own laws. But, it is the administration’s proposed review of cannabis’ federal scheduling that has the potential to change the system and improve lives going forward. After all, while cannabis—like virtually all substances we put in our bodies—is not without risks, its criminalized status is probably the most dangerous thing about it.
Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana still constitutes a Schedule 1 drug, a label that suggests it has “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.” A majority of states have rejected that claim in recent years—as of February 2022, 37 states plus Washington, D.C. permit medical use and 19 states and D.C. allow recreational adult consumption. Yet, research is still hindered, business is hampered, and the many harms associated with stigma and criminalization persist.
Just having negative interactions with law enforcement can contribute to trauma and anxiety, and incarceration itself has a “deleterious impact on health,” increasing risk for infectious disease, overdose, depression and PTSD. What’s more, these harms can extend beyond incarcerated individuals to their family members, who experience higher rates of mental and physical health issues. And since Black Americans are three-and-a-half times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for cannabis possession—despite similar rates of use—criminalization only widens existing disparities.
By calling for the review of cannabis’ federal scheduling, the Biden administration isn’t undoing the harms caused by the War on Drugs, but it is acknowledging there is a problem and opening the door to explore potential alternatives. One such option—descheduling cannabis—would remove the drug entirely from the Controlled Substances Act and thus eliminate federal prohibition.
Thanks to the natural experiments in legalization that have played out in states across the country, we have learned what legal, state-regulated cannabis markets can do. They provide people access to products of known quality, typically in the safe, often friendly, environment of a dispensary. And they support diverse products that are less risky to consume than the smokeable options that dominate the black market. State medical systems have also succeeded on many levels, giving individuals suffering from an array of chronic conditions alternatives to pharmaceuticals, while remaining under the care of a physician and often with fewer reported side effects.
Current regulatory mechanisms such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are likely ill-equipped to handle the breadth and types of cannabis products available, but states have already established their own such systems. As such, federal descheduling coupled with federal quality control standards and guidance regarding concentration, labeling and education on intoxication could facilitate a system that gives states the freedom to establish, maintain and regulate legal markets while also ensuring product consistency and consumer safety.
Clearly, we have a lot of work ahead in order to build a safer, more just approach to regulating cannabis. President Biden’s federal pardons and scheduling review are good first steps. But they cannot be the last.