Eric Holder Wants To Talk About Rescheduling Marijuana – With Caution

By Paul Gaita 02/25/16

Despite his inaction toward rescheduling marijuana when he was the attorney general, Holder maintains his stance that the Schedule I drug should be revised.

Eric Holder Wants To Talk About Rescheduling Marijuana – With Caution
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Former United States Attorney General Eric Holder has voiced his continued support for removing marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs on the U.S. Controlled Substances Act list. In an interview for PBS’s Frontline series, Holder stated that “we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate.” Holder added that Congress should, at the very least, revise its status as a Schedule I drug, which places it in the same category as heroin, LSD, peyote and GHB. However, Holder balked at the suggestion that harder drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine should be considered for decriminalization, as several European nations have done. “It’s hard for me to imagine a situation in which those drugs ought to be legalized,” he said. “I don’t see that happening [in the United States], and it’s not something that I think would be appropriate.”

Holder’s statements are in line with the stance he took in regard to rescheduling marijuana throughout his tenure with Barack Obama’s administration. He called for moving marijuana from Schedule I status in September 2014, stating that rescheduling was “something that I think we need to ask ourselves, and use science as the basis for making that determination.” However, Holder left office the following year without formally directing the federal government to act in any way on marijuana rescheduling. In numerous interviews, he echoed President Obama’s stance that reclassification is “something that would be well informed by having Congressional hearings and Congressional action informed by a policy determination that I think the administration would ultimately be glad to share.” 

According to a 2015 report from the Brookings Institute, neither the president nor the Attorney General need to wait for Congress to make a decision on this matter, as the Controlled Substances Act itself grants the administration authority to reschedule cannabis without any action from Congress. The actual steps to enact rescheduling require an acting party—either the Secretary of Health and Human Services or the Attorney General—to file a petition for a scientific and medical evaluation of the drug in question. The Attorney General also conducts its own review, usually through the Drug Enforcement Administration, and if enough evidence warrants a change in scheduling, the first stages of the process are enacted and submitted to the White House. 

If the current administration agrees with the suggested revision, then it conducts its own review before a drug can be either removed from the list or rescheduled. The process is complex but not impossible, but does require action, something that Holder’s replacement, Loretta Lynch, has not shown in abundance in regard to this issue. In written answers to questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lynch noted that the Obama administration’s policy of letting states decide legalization is “effective, consistent and rational.” Holder himself retained the cautious and deflective stance in the interview with PBS; when asked if he was disappointed that no legislation was enacted, Holder noted, “Oh, yeah, but I’ve taken executive action that I think has proven very productive,” and cited drops in the incarceration and crime rate during his tenure.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.