The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says that the Biden administration is committed to supporting evidence-based policies for marijuana as it works to complete a review of federal cannabis scheduling that was directed by the president.
That science-focused approach also applies to policy decisions on other drugs, he said.
At an event on overdose prevention on Friday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra was asked about broad drug decriminalization efforts. And while he said that it isn’t within the department’s “jurisdiction” to make policy decisions like that, the government won’t be using “20th century modalities and ways of thinking to drive what we do if we have evidence that tells us we go a different direction.”
“We would not be the ones who would be proposing [decriminalization], but we certainly would weigh in on any issue involving decriminalization of any controlled substance,” he said before specifically addressing President Joe Biden’s marijuana scheduling directive.
“We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us,” Becerra, who has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform as a congressman and as California’s attorney general, said. “That will guide what we do—and we hope that will guide what the federal government does.”
Following the president’s cannabis pardons and scheduling announcement in October, the secretary said that the department would “work as quickly as we can” to carry out the scientific review. And he’s already discussed the issue with the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to that end.
More broadly on drug policy, the official said on Friday that, “at the end of the day, we should all be about keeping people alive and letting those people thrive.”
“At HHS, we took a turn with our new strategies on drug overdose and drug use, because we think at the end of the day, each one of our loved ones deserves a chance to, as I said, stay alive and thrive,” he said.
Becerra was joined at Friday’s event by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who also responded to the drug policy question.
The senator said that she’s “long supported decriminalization of marijuana,” going back to her time as a state lawmaker in Wisconsin. Her support is based on “a number of different reasons, including the ramifications when use and possession is criminalized,” she said.
“As a federal official now in the U.S. Senate, I am observing the fact that there is a lack of coordination as you have state after state that are reexamining their laws through referenda or through action in the state legislatures—that we have a conflict between federal law and state law,” Baldwin, who has cosponsored several marijuana reform bills over her tenure, including banking and legalization proposals, said.
Meanwhile, with respect to the president’s scheduling directive, the White House drug czar said recently that that the action was “historic,” adding that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis.
Like HHS, DOJ has similarly committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.
Separately, Biden recently cheered a move by Oregon’s governor to grant tens of thousands of marijuana pardons this week, which followed his own federal clemency action last month. And he says other states should “follow Oregon’s example.”
A White House spokesperson also told Marijuana Moment last month that the president intends to sign a bipartisan marijuana research bill that was recently passed by Congress.
A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.