A federal appeals court gave medical cannabis patients and reform advocates a small but significant procedural victory on Thursday, ruling that it would hold open a case challenging the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law.
In essence, the court is putting the federal government on notice that it must “promptly” make a decision on marijuana rescheduling so that those who rely on its medical benefits don’t unduly suffer.
A group of patients and advocates filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department in a U.S. District Court in 2017, alleging that the Schedule I status of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) poses serious health risks and unfair economic disadvantages.
The court dismissed the case last year, siding with the government in its scheduling determination and shooting down each of the plaintiffs’ claims. It also argued that the plaintiffs should have first pursued reform through an administrative process, seeking relief from the federal agencies responsible for drug scheduling, before pursuing judicial action.
Now, in a new opinion on an appeal filed by patients and their supporters, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has agreed that they took the issue to the judicial branch prematurely when they should have exhausted their administrative options—but the court also determined that unique circumstances apply, particularly as it concerns the two children plaintiffs who argued that federal law jeopardizes their health and creates legal uncertainty.
“[W]e are troubled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s history of dilatory proceedings,” U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the majority. “Accordingly, while we concur with the District Court’s ruling, we do not dismiss the case, but rather hold it in abeyance and retain jurisdiction in this panel to take whatever action might become appropriate if the DEA does not act with adequate dispatch.”
In other words, the appeals panel could have simply upheld the lower court ruling and dismissed the case, but instead it will keep the matter open so that it can take action if DEA fails to appropriately consider a change to marijuana’s legal status within a reasonable amount of time.
The case is “unusual,” the court wrote, because “among the Plaintiffs are individuals who plausibly allege that the current scheduling of marijuana poses a serious, life‐or‐death threat to their health.”
“Taking the facts as alleged, and, accordingly, taking the supposed benefits some Plaintiffs have experienced from marijuana as true as well, we—like the District Court below—are struck by the transformative effects this drug has assertedly had on some Plaintiffs’ lives. As a result, we are troubled by the uncertainty under which Plaintiffs must currently live.”
It’s a ruling that sets this case apart from several other attempts to change the federal drug scheduling system through the courts, all of which have so far failed.
“I think what we have here is perhaps the most significant judicial milestone in the war against prohibition,” Joseph A. Bondy, an attorney who has worked pro bono on the case, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview.
The plaintiffs in the case, which include young cannabis patients and advocates Alexis Bortell and Jagger Cotte, who suffer from rare conditions that they’ve effectively treated with cannabis products, told the court that they were concerned that DEA would “not move quickly enough to afford them adequate relief.”
With that in mind, the court said it would “retain jurisdiction of the case in this panel, for the sole purpose of taking whatever action might become appropriate should the DEA not act with adequate dispatch.” It emphasized, however, that it holds “no view whatever on the merits of Plaintiffs’ case—that is, on whether marijuana should be listed or not.”
“It is conceivable that, in response to a petition from Plaintiffs along the lines advanced before us now, the DEA would reschedule marijuana, rendering the current case moot,” the opinion says. “And if the DEA did not, the administrative process would generate a comprehensive record that would aid in eventual judicial review.”
The court also seemed to acknowledge the plaintiffs’ argument that the scheduling of cannabis may not fulfill its stated objectives—that as our understanding of the benefits and harms of marijuana continue to evolve, they raise questions about “whether the extant regulatory regime continues to advance the CSA’s goals in light of the current state of our knowledge about the drug.”
“It is possible that the current law, though rational once, is now heading towards irrationality; it may even conceivably be that it has gotten there already,” Calabresi wrote. “Courts are not especially good at dealing with situations of this sort by themselves. In such circumstances, dialogue between courts and other law‐defining institutions, like agencies, often works best.”
“A sensible response to our evolving understanding about the effects of marijuana might require creating new policies just as much as changing old ones. This kind of constructive governmental work, mixing adjudication and program‐design, creating policy through the balancing of competing legitimate interests, is not generally best accomplished by federal courts on their own; it is, however, the stock‐in‐trade of administration.”
(2/3) This case represents the first time in history that a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the CSA has survived dismissal. #TheFightGoesOn, as we continue to advocate for de-scheduling of Cannabis, patient liberation, & freedom for those wrongfully imprisoned.
— Michael Hiller (@MikeHillerEsq) May 30, 2019
Sebastien Cotte, a reform advocate and father of Jagger, told Marijuana Moment that the court’s judgement was groundbreaking.
“[K]ids like Jagger and Alexis don’t have time to wait for the government and their endless process,” he said. “We are talking about human lives that are running out of time quickly. So I’m hopeful this could be the game-changing case that every suffering and dying kid and patient in the country needs.”
Throughout the opinion, the court emphasized that the wellness of the plaintiffs, and the success they claimed to have had using cannabis as a treatment option, inspired their novel decision in the case. Calabresi said the court empathized with their situation and said their claims about medical cannabis “are no small things.”
Indeed, the plaintiffs “should not be required to live indefinitely with uncertainty about their access to allegedly life‐saving medication or live in fear that pursuing such medical treatment may subject them or their loved ones to devastating consequences.”
Bondy said he and his team will be working with experts to draft a petition for DEA action on marijuana scheduling over the next few months. While the court didn’t provide a timeline outlining how long the agency has to act on the petition, Bondy said that 180 days seemed reasonable, though that may change.
If the DEA declines to take action or delays its decision—rescheduling petitions typically take about nine years to go through the process, the appeals panel’s opinion noted—then the court has several judicial options at its disposal.
“Those actions could include things like compelling them to act—issuing what’s called a writ of mandamus—sanctioning them, having a hearing or finding at that point that we were correct” in arguing that their situation exempted them from first seeking administrative relief “and hearing us on the merits,” Bondy said.
Here’s more from the court’s conclusion:
“But we exercise our discretion to keep jurisdiction of the case in this panel, to take whatever action may become appropriate if Plaintiffs seek administrative review and the DEA fails to act promptly. And we note that, under the unusual health‐related circumstances of this case, what has counted as appropriate speed in the past may not count as appropriate speed here.
“In doing this, we specify that we are not retaining jurisdiction to review the actions the agency may take. Jurisdiction over those may well lie solely in another circuit. Nor do we intend to retain jurisdiction indefinitely. Unless the Plaintiffs seek agency review and so inform us within six months, we will affirm the District Court’s judgment dismissing this case. (And if only some Plaintiffs seek agency review, we will dismiss the complaint as to those who do not.) But if Plaintiffs do seek agency review, and the agency fails to act with alacrity, Plaintiffs may return directly to us, under our retained jurisdiction.
“To be clear, we repeat that this case remains in our purview only to the extent that the agency does not respond to Plaintiffs with adequate, if deliberate, speed. In other words, we retain jurisdiction exclusively for the purpose of inducing the agency to act promptly.”
Bondy said he felt emboldened by the court’s judgement and that it speaks to success and energy of the broader reform movement.
“We are on the right side of this issue—the advocates, the activists—pursuing things like social equity, the right to medicate yourself with cannabis, the right to travel with cannabis, the right to decide what you’re going do with your body,” he said.
Read the court’s full opinion below:
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Watch Live: Congressional Committee Discusses Medical Marijuana And Military Veterans
A congressional committee held a hearing on four bills that concern veterans and medical marijuana on Thursday.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee discussed one piece of legislation that would allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue medical cannabis recommendations in states where it’s legal. That bill was introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).
The panel also took up a bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) that would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the therapeutic potential of cannabis in the treatment of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
“The men and women that I meet back home vouch for the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis and support further research into the issue,” Correa said in testimony prepared for the hearing. “The legislation provides a framework for that research to ensure a scientifically-sound study on the issue.”
“Cannabis must be objectively researched. Period,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), chair of the committee, said in support of the legislation. “Medicinal cannabis may have the potential to manage chronic pain better than opioids and treat PTSD.”
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), ranking member on the committee, agreed that VA should be studying the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans but complained that the proposed bill is excessively prescriptive. The congressman, who introduced a similar piece of legislation in January, said lawmakers shouldn’t “be telling the scientists how to design their studies.”
Other legislation that came up for consideration was a bill from Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a 2020 presidential candidate, that would provide training on medical cannabis for VA health practitioners.
Finally, the committee heard testimony on another Moulton proposal that would require VA to conduct a survey to “measure cannabis use by veterans.”
Watch the hearing below:
Witnesses who testified before the committee include Adrian Atizado, deputy national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Travis Horr, director of government affairs with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and Carlos Fuentes, director of national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
The VFW representative said the organization supports all but one of the cannabis bills. While the group agrees with the intent of allowing VA doctors to recommend cannabis, it “believe it is unacceptable for VA providers to recommend a treatment that they are unable to provide veterans and force patients to pay for the full cost of such care.”
"VA must expand research on the efficacy of non-traditional alternatives to opioids, such as medicinal cannabis and other holistic approaches. " #VFWTestimony
— VFW National HQ (@VFWHQ) June 20, 2019
DAV voiced support for legislation requiring VA to study medical cannabis and also to survey veterans on their marijuana usage.
“DAV supports @DeptVetAffairs research on conditions related to military service and effective treatments to help #veterans recover, rehabilitate and improve the overall quality of their lives…many veterans report the use of medicinal #cannabis for these purposes is beneficial.” pic.twitter.com/29C9WCw0Di
— DAV National HQ (@DAVHQ) June 20, 2019
And IAVA came out in strong support for the research bill. In testimony, the group said that “without research done by VA surrounding cannabis, veterans will not have conclusive answers to ways cannabis might aide their health needs. This is unacceptable.”
“VA houses some of the most innovative and best-in-class research this country has to offer. It should not be shutting its doors on a potentially effective treatment option because of politics and stigma,” the group said. “Our nation’s veterans deserve better.”
Larry Mole, chief consultant of population health services at the federal Veterans Health Administration, testified that VA opposes all four of the cannabis bills.
He expressed concerns that VA doctors would be penalized if they recommend medical cannabis, that the research requirement would be excessively onerous and that VA is already studying marijuana, that VA doctors already have access to training materials on the subject and that the proposed anonymous survey would require veterans to disclose information that could make them identifiable.
“The legislation would prescriptively define how the surveys would be conducted, but it does not provide the purpose, goals, or objectives for the surveys,” he said. “We have significant concerns that veterans will not want to participate, despite the survey being anonymous.”
Several committee members pressed Mole on VA’s current research efforts, noting the widespread support among veterans to study the medicinal benefits of marijuana.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) said that he meets with veteran constituents each week and asked the VA representative, “[w]hat am I to tell them when they ask when is this [research] actually going to happen?”
“When is this research going to occur? When is the VA going to listen to the 92 percent of veterans across all political stripes and ideologies that want to see this done?” he said.
Mole pointed to the single ongoing VA clinical trial that just recently recruited its first participant focusing on the benefits of CBD for post-traumatic stress disorder. He encouraged Levin to tell his constituents to look up the study and apply to participate if they were interested.
Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) characterized the VA’s study as “a baby steps approach” to the issue given that CBD alone isn’t representative of the products that veterans are using in the commercial market.
After the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on several of the cannabis proposals in April, the full committee was set to vote on two marijuana measures last month. That hearing was cancelled, however.
Blumenauer is also pursuing cannabis reform for veterans through a different vehicle: an appropriations bill that’s being debated on the House floor this and next week. He introduced an amendment that would prohibit VA from “interfering with a veteran’s participation in a state medical cannabis program, denying a veteran who participates in a state medical cannabis program from being denied VA services, and interfering with the ability of VA health care providers to recommend participation in state medical cannabis programs.”
This was the second congressional committee hearing on marijuana-related issues this week. On Wednesday, the House Small Business Committee met to discuss challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs in the emerging cannabis industry.
This story has been updated to include additional testimony from witnesses.
House Passes Amendments Stripping DEA Funding And Pushing FDA To Regulate CBD
Two drug policy amendments cleared the House of Representatives on Thursday, building on reform victories in the chamber the day before.
One measure addresses funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the other would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish regulations for adding CBD to foods and dietary supplements.
The first amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), would transfer $5 million from the DEA to an opioid treatment program. It passed without opposition on a voice vote and is now be attached to the House version of a large-scale spending bill, but it remains to be seen how the Senate will set funding levels for the agency in its own version of the funding legislation.
“I offer this amendment because ending the war on drugs has to mean changing our priorities in order to keep all communities safe and healthy,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The best way we do that is by offering people the help and support they need before arrest and criminalization should be considered in the first place.”
She added that the DEA is still receiving $2.36 billion in funding, which is $90 million higher than was appropriated for the last fiscal year. It’s also about $78 million higher than President Trump requested in his budget.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that handles Justice Department funding, rose in support of the amendment, stating that opioids “are a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of our communities, and we must do everything we can to combat this epidemic.”
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that the successful vote “should send a message to the DEA—it’s not business as usual anymore.”
“We want to end the drug war and we will fight for it. We will drain you dollar-by-dollar, cent-by-cent, if that’s what it takes,” he said.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) claimed time designated for the opposition on the floor but said he supports the amendment. The congressman did note, however, that funding for opioid abuse prevention grants has increased by 360 percent since 2017 and that “we want to work with both sides to make sure we have the appropriate funds necessary to make sure we fight this opioid addiction that has taken over so many parts of the country.”
In closing, Ocasio-Cortez said “just as the epidemic is exploding so should our commitment to address this problem.”
“We have overfunded one agency and we should move that to make sure that we are getting people the care they need,” she said.
Dan Riffle, senior counsel and policy advisor in Ocasio-Cortez’s office told Marijuana Moment that the amendment is “a good start, but it’s not enough.”
“Every dollar we waste trying and failing to reduce supply is a dollar that should be spent on treatment and demand reduction,” he said.
This is the second drug policy amendment the freshman congresswoman has introduced that’s been brought to the House floor. However, her earlier proposal, which was meant to lift barriers to research for psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and MDMA, was rejected when it came up for a vote as part of separate appropriations legislation last week.
The FDA amendment, introduced by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), was approved as part of an en bloc voice vote combining other relatively noncontroversial measures and it did not receive debate on the floor. The measure aims to resolve a problem that the FDA has repeatedly raised since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
Because CBD exists as an FDA-approved drug and has never been allowed in the food supply before, the agency’s former commissioner said Congress may have to pass separate legislation to provide for its lawful marketing.
The amendment’s description directs FDA to “undertake a process to make lawful a safe level for conventional foods and dietary supplements containing cannabidiol (CBD) so long as the products are compliant with all other FDA rules and regulations.”
Two other drug policy amendments were debated in the chamber on Wednesday. A measure that would block the Justice Department from using its funds to intervene in state marijuana laws was approved on a voice vote but still needs to pass in a recorded vote; another that extends similar protections to tribal cannabis programs passed without a request for a recorded vote.
This story was updated to include comment from Riffle.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Cory Booker Unveils Plan To Commute Sentences For Thousands Of Drug War Prisoners
If elected president next year, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said that he would immediately exercise his powers to grant clemency to an estimated 17,000 individuals serving time in federal prison for nonviolent drug offenses—more than half of whom would be people with marijuana-related convictions.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate unveiled his “Restorative Justice Initiative” on Thursday, outlining a plan to right the wrongs of the war on drugs and promote fairness in a criminal justice system that has historically disproportionately punished people of color even though drug use rates are virtually identical across racial lines.
Right now, there are thousands of people sitting in prison serving excessive sentences.
Today I’m announcing that as president, I’ll immediately start the clemency process for more than 17,000 individuals who are there due to the failed War on Drugs. https://t.co/SpFcQBI6EK
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) June 20, 2019
“The War on Drugs has been a war on people, tearing families apart, ruining lives, and disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income individuals — all without making us safer,” Booker wrote. “Granting clemency won’t repair all the damage that has been done by the War on Drugs and our broken criminal justice system, but it will help our country confront this injustice and begin to heal.”
Starting on his first day in office, Booker would start the clemency process by signing an executive order instructing the Bureau of Prisons, the Defender Services Division of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission to identify individuals in prison who would be eligible for clemency under his initiative.
Three broad classes of inmates would be eligible: those convicted of marijuana-related offenses, those serving sentences that would have been reduced had the bipartisan First Step Act been applied retroactively and those who received lengthier sentences for a crack cocaine-related offense than a person would have for powder cocaine.
The announcement builds on Booker’s criminal justice reform-focused presidential campaign. The senator, who introduced a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill in February, has drawn a line in the sand on the issue, stating that he won’t consider marijuana reform legislation unless it also contains measures aimed at restorative justice for those disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
His new plan would also reform the clemency system itself, establishing a federal interagency council that would advise his administration and Congress on policies including “identifying job and training opportunities, investing in rehabilitation programs, and targeting evidence-based social services” for those granted clemency.
“Progress has been far too slow, and thousands of people continue to languish in prison — brick-and-mortar warehouses of human potential,” Booker said. “The impact of the failed War on Drugs is not limited to those presently incarcerated; across the country, families and communities have been hollowed out by missing fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters.”
While it’s still early in presidential campaign season, the first Democratic debates are set for next week and candidates are increasingly willing to call out their opponents’ records. Booker is no exception, taking subtle swipes at Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) for making cavalier statements about her past cannabis use and urging Joe Biden to apologize for waxing poetic about the “civility” of his time in the Senate while working with segregationist lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Facebook/ABC News.