Alaska Rep. Don Young calls on President Biden to lower criminal status of cannabis

In a blunt letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and his co-chair on the Congressional Cannabis Caucus asked the administration for a change in federal drug laws.

They want to see cannabis downgraded from a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which outlines the criminal and regulatory status of different drugs.

“Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance, alongside significantly more dangerous substances such as heroin and LSD, and above far more dangerous drugs such as morphine, methadone and cocaine,” says Thursday’s one-page letter from Young and Ohio Rep. David Joyce.

As a result, according to Young, cannabis is barred from the kind of medical research that could help evaluate its efficacy in treating a wide range of illnesses, from cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder. Earlier in the month, Young was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who wrote to the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking expanded access to medical cannabis for former service members receiving care through the VA.

The letter emphasizes the therapeutic applications of cannabis that could be opened if it were federally rescheduled, but it makes no mention of the criminal penalties that are also part of the Schedule I designation.

This year, Young has supported multiple pieces of legislation related to cannabis, including bills to end federal prohibition, remove it completely from the Controlled Substances Act and secure gun rights for residents of states that have legalized use.

Asked whether any of those bills are likely to pass Congress before the 2022 midterms, when Young is up for reelection, his spokesperson Zack Brown replied, “The congressman has been here long enough to know things don’t happen overnight. Ultimately however, perseverance can triumph.”


“The congressman takes a states’ rights position on this and wants to end federal prohibition so that states can pursue legal adult-use cannabis if they so choose, as Alaska did in 2014,” Brown said.

The letter criticizes the Biden administration for not seriously engaging on federal cannabis reform.

“As both legislative chambers continue to debate the merits of various common-sense proposals on the issue of cannabis reform and a complete end to federal prohibition garners more and more bipartisan support, your administration’s absence from these debates and a lack of action, which is inconsistent with previous statements you have made on the topic, is of serious concern,” the letter states.

Though the president has the legal authority to change the classification category of cannabis, it would take an act of Congress to remove it completely, according to Brown.

“It’s a reasonable letter,” said Lacy Wilcox, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association.

According to Wilcox, cannabis businesses in Alaska generally favor initiatives to remove criminal penalties and prohibitions against pot but are leery of efforts to fully commercialize and regulate it federally, in part because it could mean large out-of-state companies might enter and quickly dominate Alaska’s market.

“I don’t want ‘Marlboro Green’ and ‘WeedMart’ to come up here,” Wilcox said.

Rescheduling pot under federal law could have tangible benefits for consumers and businesses in Alaska, according to Wilcox.

“We would have, potentially, access to banking services,” she said. “The trickle effect of being able to have financial services would help our employees.”

It would also give more flexibility to veterans and medical patients who want to pursue cannabis-based therapies, Wilcox said.

Overall, though, for states that already have legal and regulated cannabis markets, the schedule change would not have an enormous effect.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.