The smokey winds of change are blowing across New York State and the whole country right now when it comes to marijuana regulation.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the intention to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III drug, noting that the drug is less likely to be abused and has considerable medical uses for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. This means a lighter sentence and lesser prosecution for anyone found to be in possession of marijuana.

In announcing the change Thursday, President Joe Biden praised the move. “This is monumental,” he said. “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana and I’m committed to righting those wrongs.”

The proposed rule change will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, May 21, and spells out the rationale behind this potentially massive shift in approach to policing pot, noting that making marijuana a drug on the same level as ketamine and some anabolic steroids would be “consistent with the view of the Department of Health and Human Services that marijuana has a currently accepted medical use as well as HHS’s views about marijuana’s abuse potential and level of physical or psychological dependence.” The proposal goes on to say that there will be an open comment period in which any citizen or company based in the United States can weigh in on the change before it becomes effective.

“If marijuana is transferred into Schedule III, the manufacture, distribution, dispensing and possession of marijuana would remain subject to the applicable criminal prohibitions of the (Controlled Substances Act),” the proposal continues, and “Any drugs containing a substance within the CSA’s definition of ‘marijuana’ would also remain subject to the applicable prohibitions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

The comment period opens on Tuesday and will run through July 20; the full proposal can be read here.

But here’s why this is fascinating: The Department of Justice is following in the footsteps of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which announced on April 30 it, too, was considering downgrading marijuana to a Schedule III drug. If both the DOJ and the DEA relax their positions on marijuana, it gets a step closer to being more widely available and regulated on par with something like alcohol. This change would not make recreational pot use legal, outright, but it’s a step in that direction after decades of rigid regulations and steep criminal penalties for use, distribution and possession.

At the same time, New York State, one of 38 states in which marijuana is legalized for medical purposes and one of 24 states in which recreational marijuana use is legal, is having some growing pains when it comes to pot operations.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last week that Chris Alexander, who has served as the executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management, will be leaving his position on September 1, when he would have been up for reappointment. This change came after a review of the rollout of legal marijuana in New York State which has had more bumps and hiccups than expected.

“We promised to build the strongest, most equitable legal cannabis marketing the nation, and we’re announcing long-needed steps to make New York’s cannabis program work as promised,” Gov. Hochul said, a nod to the drawn-out process that still causes confusion among store owners and users alike. A recent 30-day assessment conducted by her office found mistakes and roadblocks that resulted in a call for major programing changes.

Among the changes that will be coming soon:

  • Creating and launching an enforcement task force to find and close illegal retail establishments
  • Fixing the licensing process to clear the backlog of applications from retail locations
  • Creating new communication tools for regulatory updates and public networks for improved customer service
  • Creation of a new cannabis map to “improve the transparency surrounding licensed retail locations,” which should be in place by this summer; and
  • Hiring more people for the licensing, compliance and enforcement teams

Expect to see additional licensed dispensaries popping up across the state as soon as this summer once these changes go into place.

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