WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration would be willing to work with Congress if lawmakers want to take marijuana off the list of what the federal government considers the most dangerous drugs, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.
"We'd be more than glad to work with Congress if there is a desire to look at and reexamine how the drug is scheduled, as I said there is a great degree of expertise that exists in Congress," Holder said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing. "It is something that ultimately Congress would have to change, and I think that our administration would be glad to work with Congress if such a proposal were made."
Several members of Congress have called on the administration to downgrade cannabis on its own without waiting for congressional action. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, the attorney general has the authority to "remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule." Holder didn't indicate Friday that he would be willing to do that unilaterally.
Although there haven't been any documented cases of deaths from overdosing on marijuana, the federal government treats it as a Schedule I drug with a "high potential for abuse," along with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.
Re-categorizing marijuana would not legalize the drug under federal law, but it could make research into marijuana's medical benefits much easier and allow marijuana businesses to take tax deductions.
Several Republican lawmakers at the hearing questioned Holder's decision to allow Colorado and Washington to legalize and regulate marijuana and to take the states' actions into consideration when prioritizing federal marijuana prosecutions. But Holder said that he was "not sure that you're going to see a huge difference" between the cases the Justice Department was bringing before and after guidance went out to U.S. attorneys on which cases to prioritize.
"We're not blazing a new trail," Holder said of the decision to prosecute only certain cases based on the department's limited resources, noting that much of marijuana law enforcement happens on the state and local levels.
Any move to reschedule marijuana would probably face resistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which Holder oversees. DEA chief Michele Leonhart said this week that the growing acceptance of marijuana only makes her agents "fight harder."
Confused by the video above? See 4/20: How Weed Day Got Its Name