HHS Secretary Becerra in Tampa says reviewing marijuana law should be done ‘as quickly as possible’

By: - October 7, 2022 3:46 pm

HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra (center) was in Tampa on Friday, Oct. 7 with Florida state Sen. Janet Cruz (left) and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (right) (photo by Mitch Perry)

U.S. Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said in Tampa Friday that he intends for his agency to move “as quickly as we can” to comply with President Joe Biden’s directive to review the decades-old policy of listing marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.

“I think you’re going to find that we’re going to move as quickly as we can but, at the end of the day science is going to take us to a solution,” Becerra told reporters in Tampa after concluding a “Meet and Greet” event with mostly Latino seniors regarding the reduction in prescription drug prices for Medicare patients that were included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed this summer.

That directive to review cannabis’ status was part of Biden’s announcement on marijuana reform released on Thursday, which includes calling on the Department of Justice to develop a process to pardon potentially thousands of people who have federal convictions for marijuana possession.

Becerra said that the review of marijuana’s federal scheduling status will be tasked to the Food and Drug Administration, and that he has already spoken with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf about starting that process.

“The president was very clear — he wants this done as quickly as possible,” Becerra said. “It’s not new science, but there’s lot of information to gather because in many states marijuana has been legalized for either medical purposes or recreational purposes.”

Controlled Substances Act

Marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, along with much more dangerous drugs such as LSD and heroin. Schedule 1 is the most prohibitive classification, defined as drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA.

The listing of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug has discouraged banks and other financial institutions from maintaining relationships with such businesses. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, only about 11 percent of all U.S. banks and 4 percent of all U.S. credit unions “are actively providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses.”

Currently, 19 states have legalized recreational cannabis and another five will decide on Election Day  whether to allow adult use, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) . Another 18 states, including Florida, allow legal use of cannabis for medical purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, Biden called upon every governor in the country to review state convictions for marijuana possession. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to the Phoenix’s request for comment.

South Florida Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones wrote a letter to DeSantis on Friday requesting that he “consider extending a similar policy towards citizens here in Florida.”

Prescription drug prices

Becerra was in Tampa touting the Biden administration’s recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which includes provisions designed to lower drug prices for millions of Americans on Medicare.

“Hopefully, we can expand it because we’re only right now providing the ability to negotiate drug prices in Medicare,” he said, adding the savings for seniors won’t kick in until 2026. “But come 2024 … we’re actually going to let people know what those negotiated prices will be. And then it will be a matter of having it input into the insurance plans that people have.”

Becerra was joined at the event by Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor, state Sen. Janet Cruz, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman. All three are running for re-election on the Nov. 8 ballot in Hillsborough County.

Becerra was scheduled to depart to Fort Myers after the meeting to confer with officials from HHS who have been on the ground providing medical services in the region in the wake of Hurricane Ian’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been sitting on Florida’s application for permission to import prescription drugs from Canada, where they are cheaper because the government negotiates prices with pharmaceutical prices for participants in the national health service. Any imported drugs would be administered by state agencies.

Drug manufacturers are fighting that plan in court and the Canadian government has repeatedly said that it’s not interested in allowing such exports.

“We’re working with the state,” Becerra said when asked where the federal government is with the proposal. “We have to make sure that it’s done right, because we know that there will be those who will try to challenge in court any action towards moving forward on a drug importation policy.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.