A Republican congressman who opposes cannabis legalization is demanding answers about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) recent recommendation to reschedule marijuana, writing in a letter to the Biden administration that he’s “very concerned” about the agency’s guidance.
In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC) lists 11 questions he wants the agency to answer by October 3.
The questions include inquiries about how HHS arrived at its rescheduling recommendation, which officials “were consulted with or contributed to” the recommendation and which outside stakeholders had a seat at the table.
It also asks a number of questions related to potential risks of cannabis legalization, for example: “Does HHS believe marijuana use can result in psychological dependence?”
The HHS rescheduling recommendation now proceeds to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has final authority on scheduling. If DEA approves moving marijuana to Schedule III, it would be categorized alongside substances such as ketamine, anabolic steroids and Tylenol with codeine. The change could have sweeping implications for federal and state policy.
Dated Tuesday, Murphy’s letter was first noted on Monday evening by Politico.
Murphy is a vocal opponent of cannabis legalization and believes jurisdictions that adopt the reform should be punished. He’s the only co-sponsor of legislation recently introduced by Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC) that would cut 10 percent in federal transportation funds from any jurisdiction with legal adult-use marijuana.
The bulk of Murphy’s letter is backwards-looking, attempting to explain to Becerra how past rescheduling reviews have turned out. During the Obama administration, for example, federal agencies found in 2016 that “clinical studies conducted to date do not meet the criteria required by the [Food and Drug Administration] to determine marijuana is safe and effective in specific therapeutic areas,” the congressman noted.
“HHS’ recommendation to reschedule marijuana begs the question what new evidence is there to suggest this action is appropriate,” wrote Murphy, who is also a physician.
Specifically, his letter asks for “the analysis of all eight factors” under the Controlled Substances Act that HHS considers when making a rescheduling recommendation as well as “a list of all officials at HHS, FDA, and NIDA that were consulted with or contributed to HHS’ recommendation to reschedule marijuana.”
Among other concerns, Murphy also pointed to a study published this year indicating that lifetime cannabis users had significantly more lead and cadmium in their bloodstreams than non-users, asking whether that raises concerns at HHS. “If these findings were made in any other substance that individuals smoked or ingested, they would be further restricted,” he wrote.
Authors of that study, however, pointed to separate research that found no heavy metal contamination in marijuana smoke. “The authors [of the smoke study] reported that the marijuana used in their study was grown in a controlled and contaminant-regulated environment,” researchers wrote. “Thus, our results suggest that not all marijuana is grown in this way and may be contaminated with metals such as Pb.”
What’s more, the study cited by Murphy also found that exclusive use of tobacco was linked to higher levels of antimony, barium, cadmium, lead, tungsten and uranium. “Tobacco smoke is the main source of Cd exposure followed by consumption of food for the nonsmoking general population,” it says.
Among cannabis products, it’s generally understood that legal, lab-tested products are far less likely to be contaminated than marijuana from the illicit market. A recent study out of Canada, for example, found a “striking contrast” in safety, with 92 percent of unregulated marijuana testing positive for numerous pesticides compared to just six percent of regulated products.
Murphy isn’t the only one who wants more clarity on the rescheduling process. The question of the technical origins and procedural handling of the scheduling review are matters of significant interest in the cannabis space. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) last month requested a copy of correspondence between President Joe Biden and HHS related to rescheduling, and attorney Matt Zorn filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
And in March, Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), alongside 15 other bipartisan members of Congress, wrote to Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland, demanding transparency in the cannabis scheduling review.