The White House drug czar on Monday recognized the therapeutic potential of marijuana in pain treatment and said that the Biden administration has not strayed from its support for incremental reforms such as descheduling cannabis. He added that the president believes existing federal marijuana policies “have not worked.”
He also responded to a question about how Biden’s annual budget proposals have maintained a rider blocking Washington, D.C. from legalizing commercial marijuana sales in the nation’s capital, despite his campaign pledge to respect state autonomy to set their own cannabis policies, placing the onus on Congress to enact a policy change.
Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Rahul Gupta fielded a series of cannabis-related questions during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Monday. While the administration has faced criticism for failing to make good on President Joe Biden’s marijuana reform campaign pledges, Gupta said he is cognizant of the policy issues that prevail under the status quo of federal prohibition.
One particularly notable exchange came in response to a question from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who pressed the official on the seeming “contradiction” that marijuana remains a federally banned substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) despite growing evidence that the plant’s constituents can treat chronic pain in a way that is safer than opioids that are less strictly regulated.
“There is evidence to suggest that, in cases of certain chronic pain, cannabis can be efficacious,” Gupta, who previously provided consulting services to a cannabis company prior to serving in the White House, said.
Under current statute, ONDCPis prevented from providing funding “for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in Schedule I” under CSA. Yet, one of the key criteria that’s kept cannabis in Schedule I is the government’s insistence that marijuana has no established medical value, despite Gupta’s acknowledgement to the contrary.
Federal law also requires the ONDCP director to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize” marijuana or other Schedule I drugs—making his comments on cannabis’s medical benefits all the more notable.
Marijuana’s Schedule I status “prohibits scientists and researchers from conducting rigorous, large-scale studies on cannabis,” Khanna said in the exchange. Meanwhile, most opioid-based painkillers fall under the less restrictive Schedule II status under CSA.
“Do you see this, Dr. Gupta, as a contradiction that needs to be resolved?” Khanna asked.
“Clearly, the president has been clear about this in regards to the decriminalization,” Gupta said. “But also, it’s important for us to continue to look at this from a research perspective, from a medical use perspective. But clearly the policies that we’ve had in this country with regard to marijuana have not worked, and the president has said so.”
The ONDCP director made similar remarks in an interview published by Financial Times earlier this month, adding that the administration is actively “monitoring” states that have legalized marijuana to inform federal policy.
“I know you have to be careful not to get ahead of the president—that you’re being appropriately diplomatic in your responses,” Khanna said. “But the president has the executive authority to direct DEA, HHS and FDA to consider administratively rescheduling marijuana, which would facilitate research which would facilitate patient access.”
“I’m for legalizing—at the very least decriminalizing—but the president could at least make sure that it’s rescheduled so it’s not more restrictive than opioids themselves” with respect to research, the congressman said.
While Khanna asked the director to privately urge the president to take certain steps administratively to loosen research barriers for cannabis, Gupta said simply that “it is the foundation for so many ways to proceed forward, including our current strategy, to follow science, follow data—and I can commit to you that we’re going to continue to do that.”
“I would just hope you and the administration really will consider the rescheduling and to look at what can make a difference in patients lives and resolve this discrepancy, where currently cannabis, which is actually more effective and isn’t killing thousands of people, is more restrictive than the opioids that have done so much harm in American life,” Khanna said.
In his earlier interview with Financial Times, Gupta said that the government is “learning from those states [that have enacted cannabis reform]” and “monitoring the data and trying to see where things go. But one thing is very clear, and the president has been clear about that—the policies that we’ve had around marijuana have not been working.”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) also pressed the drug czar on cannabis policy during the Monday hearing, voicing frustration that the Biden administration has continued to propose budgets that keep intact a spending bill rider precluding D.C. from using its local tax dollars from implementing commercial marijuana sales, despite District voters approving legalization in 2014.
The congresswoman said that she’s “extremely disappointed” in the administration’s decision to maintain that appropriations language in its last two budget requests and would be submitted a written question for the record. Nonetheless, Gupta addressed the issue, though he deferred responsibility to the legislative branch.
“I understand it’s with Congress, and I’ll leave it at that,” the director said. “And having said that, the president has been very clear that he supports decisions regarding legalization of marijuana to up to individual states—but at the federal level, he has supported decriminalization of marijuana use and the automatic expungement of records. And part of the reason is because of the disparities in incarceration.”
After more than a year in office, however, Biden has faced serious criticism from lawmakers and advocates over the lack of meaningful action to reform federal cannabis policies, as he advocated for on the campaign trail.
Gupta also touched on broader drug harm reduction policies throughout Monday’s hearing. He emphasized that the administration is committed to exploring alternative approaches to substance misuse.
Among the specific harm reduction policies under review that Gupta talked about in an earlier interview would be to possible permit safe consumption sites where people could use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment to prevent overdose deaths and help people access treatment resources.
While the Biden administration is still investigating the clinical efficacy of such facilities, Gupta said that the proposal to lift the existing federal ban is on the table. The comments also come amid ongoing litigation against the Justice Department, which was recently due to respond in a federal case concerning the legality of safe consumption sites that was brought about as a challenge to a Philadelphia-based nonprofit before that response deadline was extended.
New York City opened the first sanctioned harm reduction centers late last year, and officials have already reported positive results in saving lives. The facilities have yet to face a federal challenge like Philadelphia’s Safehouse did under the Trump administration.
DOJ said in February that it is actively “evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate guardrails for such sites, as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety.”
Gupta previously said that it’s critical to explore “any and every option” to reduce overdose deaths, and that could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence supports their efficacy.