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The Biden administration is moving to reclassify marijuana. Here's what that means

A person prepares a marijuana cigarette in New York City on April 20, 2024.
Leonardo Munoz
AFP via Getty Images
A person prepares a marijuana cigarette in New York City on April 20, 2024.

Updated April 30, 2024 at 18:48 PM ET

The Biden administration is taking another step toward reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, a move President Biden promised when he was running for office in 2019, and that could be popular with young voters this year.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, which comes with the most restrictions. Other drugs in the category include heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

But Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday circulated a proposal to reclassify pot as a Schedule III drug, said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. That's a lower-risk category that includes ketamine, Tylenol with codeine, and anabolic steroids.

The proposal will be published in what's known as the Federal Register, and there will be time for public comments followed by more agency review of the comments before the decision becomes final. The exact timeline is not yet clear.

Biden pledged to look at this back in 2019

Biden pledged in 2019 that he would decriminalize marijuana and expunge prior convictions for pot use. He said he would support legalization for medical use — but leave decisions about recreational use up to the states.

In 2022, weeks before the midterm elections, Biden announced that he had asked the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to review the classification issue. HHS finished its part of the review last year, and sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is part of the DOJ, recommending that marijuana be downgraded to a Schedule III drug.

In 2022 and 2023, Biden issued proclamations that granted widespread pardons to people who had been federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana.

After Biden mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address this year, Vice President Harris has held a couple of events where she highlighted marijuana reform — an issue that has invigorated young voters and voters of color, two groups Biden and Harris need support from in order to win reelection this year.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 1, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Drug Enforcement Administration as the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.