The Justice Department is formally moving to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, in a historic shift

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Thursday formally took steps to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, in a historic shift in U.S. drug policy spanning generations.

A proposed rule sent to the Federal Register recognizes the medical use of cannabis and acknowledges that it has less potential for abuse than some of the nation's most dangerous drugs. The plan approved by Attorney General Merrick Garland does not directly legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The Drug Enforcement Administration will publicly comment on the proposal to eliminate marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin and LSD. It moves the pot to Schedule III, alongside ketamine and some anabolic steroids.

The move comes after a recommendation from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which launched a review of the drug's status in 2022 at the urging of President Joe Biden.

Biden has also taken steps to pardon thousands of people federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana, and has called on governors and local leaders to take similar steps to expunge convictions.

“This is monumental,” Biden said in a video statement, calling it an important step toward reversing long-standing inequality. “Far too many lives have been turned upside down because of a botched approach to marijuana, and I am determined to right these wrongs. You have my word on it.”

The election-year announcement could help Biden, a Democrat, shore up sagging support, especially among younger voters.

The notice of proposed rulemaking filed with the Federal Register initiates a 60-day comment period, followed by possible review by an administrative law judge, a potentially lengthy process.

Biden and a growing number of lawmakers from both major political parties have pushed for the DEA's decision as marijuana becomes increasingly decriminalized and accepted, especially by younger people.

Schedule III drugs are still controlled substances and subject to rules and regulations, and people who traffic them without authorization may still face federal criminal charges.

Some critics argue that the DEA should not change course on marijuana because the rescheduling is unnecessary and could lead to harmful side effects. Others argue that marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol.

Federal drug policy has lagged behind many states in recent years: 38 states have already legalized medical marijuana and 24 states have legalized its recreational use. That has contributed to the rapid growth of the marijuana industry, estimated to be worth nearly $30 billion.

Relaxing federal regulations could reduce tax burdens that could be 70% or more for marijuana companies, according to industry groups. It could also make it easier to research marijuana, as it is very difficult to conduct authorized clinical trials on Schedule I substances.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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Follow AP's coverage of marijuana at https://apnews.com/hub/marijuana.

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