Letter to Merrick Garland, Attorney General - Booker, Warren Call of DOJ to Decriminalize Cannabis


Date: Oct. 8, 2021
Location: Washington, DC

Dear Attorney General Garland:

We write to urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to decriminalize cannabis using its
existing authority to remove the drug from the Federal controlled substances list. Under the
Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), the Attorney General can remove a substance from
the CSA's list, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level via this descheduling process would allow states to
regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial
disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws, and facilitate valuable medical research. While
Congress works to pass comprehensive cannabis reform, you can act now to decriminalize

The CSA imposes criminal penalties for the use and distribution of certain drugs that vary
in severity according to each drug's "schedule." A Schedule I drug is classified as having "no
currently accepted medical use" and "a high potential for abuse." Currently, the CSA classifies
cannabis as a Schedule I substance, alongside substances like heroin and ecstasy.
In contrast,
arguably more harmful substances such as cocaine and OxyContin are classified as Schedule II
substances, which are less stringently regulated.

It is far past time to decriminalize the use of cannabis in the United States. On the
campaign trail, President Biden promised to "decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions." He declared that "[n]obody should
be in jail for smoking marijuana." This position is in step with the vast majority of the country:
approximately 91% of adults in the United States believe that cannabis should be legal for
medical and recreational use, or for medical use only. To date, thirty-six states, four territories,
and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes,
and eighteen states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for adult recreational
use. Studies show that state-level legalization has not caused spikes in traffic accidents, violent
crime,or use by teenagers, paving the way for much needed action at the federal level.

Decriminalizing cannabis is also a critical first step in addressing the racial inequities in
cannabis law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union found last year that Black
Americans are more than three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than
white Americans, even though both groups use cannabis at similar rates. The "widespread
collateral damage" from racially disparate marijuana enforcement can include "not only arrests,
incarceration, and lifelong criminal convictions, but also the loss of jobs, housing, financial aid
eligibility, child custody, and immigration status." Federal cannabis policy has
disproportionately affected the ability of people of color in the United States to vote, to pursue
education, and to build intergenerational wealth. You can begin to repair the harm that the
criminalization of cannabis has wrought on communities of color by using your statutory and
regulatory authority to deschedule this drug.

Moreover, decriminalizing cannabis is a vital step so that Americans seeking cannabis as
a medical treatment option for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illness can legally use the drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has
acknowledged that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is derived from cannabis, "has proven
medical benefits in particular formulations." The Food and Drug Administration has approved
THC synthetics as medications for patients with AIDS and patients undergoing chemotherapy for
cancer and has also approved a cannabis plant-derived cannabidiol (CBD) medication for
pediatric patients suffering from epilepsy. Your office formally descheduled the latter
pharmaceutical. Cannabis's Schedule I classification is a significant barrier to further medical
research because researchers are severely limited in their ability to access the substance. We
appreciate the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) May 2021 announcement that it will
begin issuing additional cannabis manufacturing licenses for research purposes, but DOJ can
and should do more. Decriminalizing cannabis is crucial to facilitating scientific research and
would be invaluable to doctors and patients across the nation.

The executive branch has the authority to initiate the process of cannabis descheduling.
The CSA empowers the Attorney General to initiate proceedings to reschedule or deschedule a
drug, either individually or at the request of the HHS Secretary or another interested party. The
Attorney General then seeks a scientific and medical evaluation from the HHS Secretary,
including the Secretary's recommendations as to the appropriate scheduling for the drug or
whether the drug should be descheduled. If the Secretary recommends descheduling a drug,
that recommendation is binding on the Attorney General. However, if the Secretary
recommends retaining a drug in the same schedule or moving it to a different schedule, that
recommendation is not binding and the Attorney General may still choose to initiate a
rulemaking procedure to deschedule or reschedule the drug.

The executive branch last considered petitions to reschedule cannabis in 2016. The
DEA denied the petitions, partly because the U.S. is a signatory to an international treaty regulating cannabis. But the United Nations voted last December to reduce restrictions on
cannabis under the treaty, and some signatories of the treaty, such as Canada and Uruguay,
have legalized cannabis completely.

We urge the DOJ to initiate the process to decriminalize cannabis. Doing so would be an
important first step in the broader tasks of remedying the harmful racial impact of our nation's
enforcement of cannabis laws and ensuring that states can effectively regulate the growing
cannabis industry, including by assisting small business owners and those most harmed by our
historical enforcement of cannabis laws. We respectfully request, no later than Wednesday,
October 20, 2021, a response as to whether your office intends to order a review of the
classification of cannabis under the CSA.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.


Elizabeth Warren
United States Senator

Cory A. Booker
United States Senator