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The DOJ is expected to recommend marijuana be reclassified as less dangerous

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Justice Department is expected to recommend reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug. The move would be a major shift in federal drug policy. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is in studio with us now and following all of this. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So Ryan, what exactly is the Justice Department expected to recommend here?

LUCAS: Well, right now, under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is considered what's called a Schedule I drug. Those are drugs that do not have an accepted medical use. They're drugs that have high potential for abuse, considered dangerous. Talking about things like heroin, LSD - those are both Schedule I drugs. Right now, so is marijuana. And that's what may be about to change.

Our colleague Deepa Shivaram, who covers the White House, is reporting that the Justice Department is expected to send the White House Office of Budget and Management a recommendation that marijuana be reclassified or rescheduled. Our understanding is that the recommendation would be as a Schedule III drug. Some examples of current Schedule III drugs are things like Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids.

SUMMERS: OK, but help us understand what this means practically. What would this actually change if this move is made?

LUCAS: Well, first off, it's important to say what will not change. And what will not change is that marijuana will remain illegal at the federal level, and the penalties for marijuana prosecutions also will remain the same, and they will remain on the books. But reclassifying it as a Schedule III does change several things. It would recognize that marijuana has medical applications. That in turn would open up the doors to research to study the effects of cannabis. And that's something that's been very difficult in the past because Schedule I has made it really hard to do medical research on the drug.

SUMMERS: Right. And, I mean, we should just point out here, a number of states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana at the state level in recent years. So this reclassification, what impact does it have on those states?

LUCAS: Right. There are almost 40 states now that have some type of legal cannabis program, and by that I mean either adult use or for medical purposes. The move to Schedule III would get rid of some tax burdens that legal cannabis companies face. I spoke with Adam Goers with the Cannabist Company. It operates more - in more than a dozen states. And he told me that state-legal cannabis companies can pay an effective tax rate of up to 80%. And that, he says, can make it really hard for them to thrive. The change in scheduling would mean that those sorts of businesses would be taxed like any ordinary business, he says. And he argues that this would give a boost to the legal cannabis folks and could help elbow out folks in the illicit market.

Not everyone, though, is happy with this step from the Biden administration. One group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, it says that, really, it's the marijuana industry investors that will benefit from this decision, not public health and safety. And the group says that it's going to oppose this move.

SUMMERS: OK. So given all of that, what happens next?

LUCAS: Well, the Justice Department makes this recommendation to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The OMB will review it. If it signs off as expected, then the drug enforcement administration will take public comments on this plan. And only after this full process is done would this become final, so we're still looking at several months until this becomes a done deal.

SUMMERS: Ryan, a question of timing - why is the Biden administration doing this right now?

LUCAS: Well, President Biden pledged back in 2019 that he would decriminalize marijuana, that he would expunge prior convictions for pot use as well. He also said that he would support legalization for medical use, but that he would leave decisions about recreational use up to the states. Biden talked about the marijuana issue again in his State of the Union just a few months ago. It's now almost May. We have a presidential election here in six months or so, so that may help explain some of the timing that we're seeing here.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.