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Federal Court Orders DEA To ‘Promptly’ Consider Marijuana Rescheduling…Or Else

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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.”

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:

18-859 Documents 2 by on Scribd

Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative in Arkansas are seeing glimmers of hope that they will be able to qualify for the November ballot despite serious setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge ruled on Monday that the secretary of state must accept signatures that were not collected in-person or notarized, as has been required by existing policy, because of excessive burdens that imposes on campaigns amid the health crisis. Legalization advocates say the temporary injunction, which comes before a final ruling, gives them confidence their measure can qualify ahead of a July 3 deadline to submit signatures.

Now people can download, print and mail in signed petitions—significantly bolstering the chances the legal cannabis campaign can make up for the petitioning deficit created by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements enacted due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the April lawsuit that brought about the federal injunction (which was not filed by legalization activists but by another initiative campaign), plaintiffs also made the case that full-scale electronic signature gathering should be permitted. U.S. District Judge P. K. Holmes empathized with that request in his order, noting that in many scenarios outside the ballot process, officials have recognized the validity of digitally signed documents—including in legal proceedings he oversees.

“It is not that electronic signatures cannot similarly be determined to be genuine. In fact, electronic signatures are commonplace and accepted for all manner of official business, and not only by the State, but by this Court,” he said. “Counsel for Plaintiffs and the Secretary of State electronically signed the briefing on this very motion, and the Court has electronically signed this opinion and the order.”

However, the judge said there must be a balance that takes into account the state’s interest in ensuring the validity of signatures and so he’s doubtful the final ruling will provide for digital signatures.

In any case, the court’s temporary injunction bodes well for the marijuana reform campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, which says it was on the path to qualifying before in-person signature gathering was suspended. Melissa Fults, executive director of the group, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that she’s confident the new policies will help the initiative get placed before voters.

“I am still confident. We’re going to give a hard push these next four-and-a-half weeks—hoping and praying that we get signatures and get them turned in and get on the ballot,” she said. “And I think it’ll pass once it gets on the ballot.”

Arkansas voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

As the state begins the process of reopening, Fults said the campaign will also be engaging in limited in-person collection with enhanced safety mechanisms in place, as well as “drive by” gathering for people to sign the initiative from their vehicles.

In order to make the ballot, the group needs to submit about 90,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 3. Fults said they’ve collected roughly 20,000 so far, and so these last five weeks will prove critical.

Under the proposal, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to four ounces of cannabis flower and grow up to six plants and six seedings.

A minimum of one dispensary must be licensed per county, and there must be at least 30 shops per congressional district.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales would first go toward implementation. After that, 60 percent would be used to fund public pre-K and after school programs and 40 percent would fund the operations of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Another campaign that was working to put cannabis legalization on the state’s ballot told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Tuesday that it is ending its effort for the year and will shift its focus to 2022. An Arkansas True Grass spokesperson said “we weren’t able to do any of our spring events” because of the virus, leaving them without an opportunity to qualify.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform efforts throughout the country: 

Activists in Montana and Nebraska have resumed signature gathering with new safety measures in place for campaigns to legalize adult-use marijuana and medical cannabis, respectively.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office. That request was denied but in March the campaign expressed optimism that they had amassed enough signatures to qualify anyway.

Separate Oregon campaigns to decriminalize drug possession while significantly expanding substance misuse treatment and to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes recently submitted more than enough raw signatures to qualify for ballot access, though they must still be verified.

Activists in Washington State are continuing to work on a drug decriminalization and treatment measure.

Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol.

A federal judge recently ordered Ohio officials to accept electronic signature submissions to place local marijuana decriminalization measures on the ballot—a decision that could potentially have positive implications for a statewide legalization campaign in the works.

California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law asked for a digital petitioning option, but state officials haven’t signed on.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

Read the federal judge’s order on Arkansas signature gathering below: 

20-5070 Miller Et Al v. Thu… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Scientists And Veterans File Lawsuit Challenging DEA’s Marijuana Rescheduling Denials

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Scientists And Veterans File Lawsuit Challenging DEA’s Marijuana Rescheduling Denials

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is facing yet another marijuana-related lawsuit—and this time, researchers and veterans are challenging the agency’s denial of prior cannabis rescheduling requests.

The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) filed suit last week in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for a review of DEA’s scheduling determinations in 2020, 2016 and 1992. In all cases, the agency denied the petitions, citing statutory obligations to maintain the status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Petitioners are taking exception to the basis of those denials, raising questions about DEA’s reliance on scheduling standards that they feel are arbitrary and misinterpret federal law. In particular, they are seeking reviews of the agency’s claims that marijuana must be strictly scheduled because, the government has claimed, it has no currently accepted medical value and has not been proven to be safe.

They also argue that another statutory policy DEA says necessitates marijuana being strictly controlled is unconstitutional.

“The reason we’re filing this is because, ultimately, the research has been impeded,” Matt Zorn, an attorney representing SRI in the case, told Marijuana Moment. “We’re trying to get the administration to remove those roadblocks.”

In terms of valid therapeutic value, the agency has said there are five criteria that a substance must meet, including the reproducibility of the drug, the existence of controlled studies establishing safety and efficacy and “whether the drug is not accepted by qualified experts.”

Lawyers representing SRI argued in a filing that the test “has no basis in the statute, is contrary to the statutory text, structure, history, and purpose, departs from the original understanding of the statute and rests on flawed and outdated case law.”

Further, they said DEA’s determination that there’s a “lack of accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision” is wrong because it “misconstrues the statute and is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law because the agency has improperly imported a clinical efficacy requirement.”

In its past denials of rescheduling petitions, the agency has asserted that marijuana can only be placed in either Schedule I or II. But the attorneys said the statute justifying that determination is “an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority” that “violates core separation of powers principles” by granting the attorney general authority to schedule drugs on his or her discretion based on an interpretation of international treaty obligations.

“[T]he statute outsources regulatory power to create domestic criminal law to international organizations and subordinates domestic law to treaty obligations, conventions, and protocols,” the suit states. “Then, it entrusts the Attorney General, a member of the executive branch, to execute non-self-executing international treaty obligations, providing him no intelligible principle, instructions, standards, or criteria whatsoever against which to measure what ‘he deems most appropriate.’ This is unconstitutional.”

Stephen Zyskiewicz, who filed the handwritten 2020 rescheduling petition that is central to the new suit’s claims, is not a party to the case. Instead, several military veterans, as well as SRI and its principal investigator Sue Sisley, are the plaintiffs.

“Marijuana’s schedule I status and DEA’s determinations hinder SRI’s clinical research—the very clinical research that DEA requires under its unlawful interpretation of 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1)(B) to consider removing marijuana from schedule I—in several key respects,” the lawsuit states. For example, the scheduling status has meant that “SRI has had to delay FDA-approved clinical trials to investigate the safety and efficacy of smoked marijuana in treating breakthrough pain in terminal cancer patients.”

This isn’t SRI’s first time taking the feds to court over their marijuana decisions. The institute, which is among several dozen applicants to become a federally authorized manufacturer of cannabis for research purposes, successfully forced DEA to issue an update on the status of their application processing and then got the Justice Department to hand over a “secret” memo that DEA allegedly used to justify a delay in deciding on those proposals.

“What has been animating all of these lawsuits is that we can’t get the research done,” Zorn said. “The ideal result is that we stop filing lawsuits and the administration decides it wants to support cannabis research. But until that happens, we’ll be in the courts.”

Meanwhile, a public comment period recently ended for proposed rules that DEA published as part of its attempt to expand the number of authorized cannabis manufacturers. Many advocates made the case that marijuana research should not be the purview of DEA at all and should instead be handled by a federal health agency.

DEA could also find itself being challenged over its marijuana scheduling decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case. After an appeals court dismissed a lawsuit because the plaintiffs said they wouldn’t push for rescheduling through administrative channels, attorneys in the case said they will soon request that the nation’s highest court take it up.

Read the new lawsuit challenging DEA’s marijuana rescheduling denials below: 

SRI Suit DEA by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers

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USDA Approves Hemp Plans For U.S. Virgin Islands And Four Indian Tribes

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Wednesday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans from a U.S. territory and four additional Indian tribes.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is the first territory to have its proposal accepted. USDA also signed off on plans from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Chippewa Cree Tribe, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

That brings the total number of approved plans across states, territories and tribes to 47.

USDA has been signing off on hemp plans on a rolling basis since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Earlier this month, Massachusetts joined the list of states where proposed regulations for hemp have been approved.

The department said in a new notice that it “continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes.”

While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.

USDA announced in February that it will temporarily lift two provisions that the industry viewed as problematic. Those policies primarily concern testing and disposal requirements. The department declined to revise the THC limit, however, arguing that it’s a statutory matter that can’t be dealt with administratively.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said on several occasions that the Drug Enforcement Administration influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for CBD. It sent an update on its progress to Congress in March, explaining that the agency is actively exploring pathways to allow for the marketing of the cannabis compound as a dietary supplement and is developing enforcement discretion guidance.

An FDA public comment period was reopened indefinitely for individuals to submit feedback on CBD regulations.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.

However, USDA said last week that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.

Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.

Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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