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In major shift, US takes step to make marijuana use a less serious crime

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The US Justice Department on Tuesday moved to make marijuana use a less serious federal crime, taking a step to reclassify the drug out of a category that includes heroin in a shift that, once completed, would shake up cannabis policy nationwide.

Shares of cannabis firms surged following the news. Stocks of pot companies such as Tilray, Trulieve Cannabis Corp and Green Thumb Industries were up over 20 per cent in late afternoon trading.

The US Department of Justice, which oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration, recommended that cannabis be classified as a so-called schedule 3 drug, with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence, instead of schedule 1, which is reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse, two sources confirmed.

Penalties for use of schedule 3 drugs are less severe under federal law.

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The proposal is being sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review and finalisation, the sources said, while cautioning that there would still be a public comment period and a regulatory process to come.

US President Joe Biden, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, initiated a review of the drug’s classification in 2022, fulfilling a campaign promise that was important to left-leaning members of his political base.

Currently, the drug falls under the DEA’s class that includes heroin and LSD. It would be moved to a group that contains ketamine, and tablets of the painkiller Tylenol containing codeine.

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Reclassifying marijuana represents a first step toward narrowing the chasm between state and federal cannabis laws. The drug is legal in some form in nearly 40 states.

While rescheduling the drug does not make it legal, it would open up the doors for more research and medical use, resulting in lighter criminal penalties and increased investments in the cannabis space.

The DEA declined to comment.

The Justice Department’s move came after the Health and Human Services Department in August recommended rescheduling cannabis as part of Biden’s ordered review.

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Public support for marijuana legalisation in the United States has risen significantly over the past few decades, reflecting growing acceptance of recreational and medicinal cannabis use.

Colorado and Washington became the first states to allow recreational marijuana in 2012.

If marijuana classification were to ease at the federal level, that could allow major stock exchanges to list businesses that are in the cannabis trade and potentially allow foreign companies to begin selling their products in the United States.

While many states have legalised the medical or recreational use of cannabis, its illegal status under US federal law has forced most major banks to deny their services to cannabis-related businesses.

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Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are seeking to bolster support from the black community for their re-election bid against former president Donald Trump, a Republican.

Black Americans and communities of colour have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana drug enforcement for decades, with black people 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to data from the Pew Research Centre, black and white Americans used marijuana at roughly comparable rates in 2020, yet black people accounted for 39 per cent of all marijuana possession arrests in the US despite being only 12 per cent of the US population then.

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