When will the federal review of cannabis scheduling be completed?
Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, fielded this and other questions on Wednesday from Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart during a virtual event that covered topics including the ongoing opioid epidemic and cannabis policy.
“It will be done expeditiously because the president has asked for it to be done expeditiously,” Gupta said on Wednesday.
The conversation comes just weeks after President Joe Biden made a series of unprecedented announcements about cannabis. He directed Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, to initiate an assessment of whether cannabis should remain in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category reserved for substances with the highest potential for misuse and no medical value, where it has been since the 1970s. Biden also pardoned federal cannabis possession convictions.
“It makes no sense,” Biden said in his announcement, referencing the current federal approach to cannabis policy.
Gupta, the first medical doctor to hold the post of “drug czar” in the United States, said that Biden’s announcements were “historic in nature.”
“No one before in the history of the United States has made those proclamations,” Gupta said.
Capehart asked Gupta if Biden’s call for the review on cannabis scheduling is a first step toward full decriminalization. Gupta hedged by saying it was a move that Biden believes in “deeply.”
Gupta highlighted that while white and Black Americans consume cannabis at similar rates, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested. And, a cannabis conviction can create serious hurdles for people securing jobs, housing, scholarships, custody, and more.
“These are the kind of actions that President Biden has announced [that] will help us look at our justice policies from an equity lens. And it’s an action that is going to impact the lives of Americans,” Gupta said, adding that when he was a practicing physician, he “saw so many people” that showed symptoms of the “lost economic opportunity.”
“A lot of those diseases and suffering will be as a result of that. So this is going to make a big difference to people’s lives in so many ways,” Gupta said.
Capehart also asked Gupta, through the lens of science, if it “makes sense” that cannabis is criminalized at all, or if the gateway theory, which continues to be upheld by those who push back against cannabis policy reform, holds water.
“Just as any substance for a growing brain isn’t good, it isn’t good for children and adolescents as well. But that doesn’t nullify the medical benefits that have been documented in science over the years,” Gupta said.
Gupta added that much of the research around cannabis is “developing science,” and referenced the barriers that researchers have faced, due to restrictions rooted in the federal classification of cannabis, while trying to study cannabinoids. This, Gupta said, resulted in “deficiency of literature.”
“I’m glad that we’re able to see more science develop, so we will get closer to the truth,” Gupta said. “To me, as a scientist, it’s really important to know, ‘Hey, what are the effects, both good and bad?’ so we can make good sound policy based on that data.”