If plaintiffs in two far-reaching lawsuits being heard in federal courts this week have their way, marijuana will no longer be classified under the U.S.’s most restrictive category, and the federal government will have to rescind a policy that treats cannabidiol as a Schedule I drug even when it is derived from legal hemp.
On Wednesday, a federal district court judge in Manhattan will hear oral arguments in a case alleging that cannabis is improperly classified under the most restrictive category of Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value.
Plaintiffs in the case include former NFL player Marvin Washington and a 12-year-old girl who treats epilepsy with medical cannabis.
And on Thursday, a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will convene in San Francisco to hear a separate case challenging a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) move that advocates say oversteps the agency’s authority.
That dispute centers on a Federal Register notice DEA filed in late 2016 creating a new drug category code for marijuana extracts. The Hemp Industries Association and individual businesses are suing the government, claiming that the action puts in jeopardy farmers and researchers who are growing and processing legally grown hemp in accordance with provisions of the congressionally approved Farm Bill.
The Wednesday hearing, in the broader case about cannabis’s Schedule I status, concerns a Justice Department motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The case’s impact “will not necessarily be immediate,” Joseph Bondy, an attorney in the case, told Marijuana Moment in an interview. No matter who wins, it will likely be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
But the Justice Department might find itself having to begin compiling documents for discovery and preparing officials for depositions in the case very soon.
Presiding Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein has a “track record of ruling very, very quickly after the argument,” Bondy said, meaning that he may officially reject the government’s motion to dismiss as soon as Wednesday.
The judge is giving the case “prioritized attention,” the New York Times reported.
While the Justice Department will almost certainly seek to prevent U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions from having to testify in the case, Bondy said he might have to anyway.
“He’s been so vocal, and rescinded the Cole Memo and put all these things in place himself,” he said in the interview. “He wasn’t the passive repository of the Controlled Substances Act. This is going to unfold well if we just get over this hurdle. The whole landscape has shifted and it really favors us.”
And even if the plaintiffs ultimately lose, or the case proceeds slowly, its impact will still be “powerful,” Bondy predicted, saying it will likely lead to “additional fallout” in terms of emboldening policymakers to change cannabis laws legislatively.
Several similar lawsuits challenging how the federal government treats marijuana have been unsuccessful, but advocates believe that the shifting political climate surrounding the issue puts them in a better position for a favorable ruling this time.
“We might not have been able to do this 10 or 15 years ago,” Bondy told the Times. “But the climate is very different now.”
The two federal cannabis lawsuits represent an escalation in tactics as legalization advocates continue to gain momentum.
“This is a perfect a storm of cannabis legalization support and its growing momentum,” Nelson Guerrero, co-founder of the Cannabis Cultural Association and plaintiff in case being heard on Wednesday, told Marijuana Moment in a statement. “As activists, we must use every avenue possible to move the needle forward to ultimately end cannabis prohibition – whether it’s in the courts, on the streets, or through the media.”
VA Admits It “Can Look At Marijuana As An Option For Treating Veterans”
Despite repeated claims to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is now admitting that it “can look at marijuana as an option for treating Veterans.”
The stance, which comes in the form of new content uploaded to a VA webpage last week, contrasts with a letter that Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin sent to members of Congress in December, less than two months ago.
“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects,” he claimed at the time.
There have been no changes to federal cannabis laws in the interim.
The VA Office of Research & Development’s webpage on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now says that earlier research on medical cannabis “found limited evidence that marijuana use might alleviate neuropathic pain in some patients, and that it might reduce spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, but found insufficient evidence to assess the effects of marijuana on PTSD.”
“VA is not currently able to prescribe medical marijuana to Veterans,” it continues, “but can look at marijuana as an option for treating Veterans.”
A cached previous version of the same page doesn’t mention marijuana at all.
The update to the webpage comes as Shulkin and the department are under increasing pressure on medical cannabis and completely unrelated issues.
A group of members of Congress are pushing the VA to allow its physicians to recommend medical cannabis, or at least to refer veterans to studies on the drug’s potential.
And a VA inspector general’s report released last week found that Shulkin made “serious derelictions” that resulted in improper use of taxpayer money to cover portions of an overseas trip he and his wife took to Denmark and the UK last year.
The report, which included portions of Shulkin’s travel agenda, happened to reveal that on July 19 he met with British officials to discuss medical cannabis as part of the trip.
Under an internal VA administrative directive, the department’s policy is that its “providers are prohibited from recommending, making referrals to or completing paperwork for Veteran participation in State marijuana programs.”
Shulkin has repeatedly tried to pass the buck to Congress when asked about the issue.
During a White House briefing last year, for example, he said that state medical cannabis laws may be providing “some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful, and we’re interested in looking at that and learning from that.” But he added that “until time the federal law changes, we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”
The distinction between recommendation and prescription is an important one. No physician in the U.S. — government or private — can prescribe marijuana, because prescription is a federally-regulated process and cannabis currently falls under the Controlled Substances Act’s restrictive Schedule I, a category that is supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
That’s why the 29 states with medical cannabis access allow doctors to simply recommend the drug, circumventing the prescription process.
Shulkin has the unilateral authority to rescind the internal ban and clear the way for VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in states where it is legal, but he has repeatedly claimed that federal law — without citing a particular statute — blocks him from doing so.
The secretary’s unwillingness to move on marijuana goes beyond just letting doctors who work for him recommend it. He has also thus far refused to help lift institutional roadblocks preventing the department from participating in scientific research on cannabis’s uses.
In an interview last year, he said that it is “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs.”
That position has led to recruitment issues for researchers conducting trials. For example, one such study on marijuana’s effects on PTSD has been prevented from reaching veterans at the Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital.
“This study needs 50 more participants and the Phoenix V.A. is in the best possible position to assist by simply allowing principle investigators to brief [VA] medical staff on the progress of the study, and by allowing clinicians to reveal the existence of the study to potential participants,” the American Legion, which represents more than 2.4 million military veterans, wrote to Shulkin in September. “Your immediate attention in this important matter is greatly appreciated. We ask for your direct involvement to ensure this critical research is fully enabled.”
And John Hudak, a researcher with the Brookings Institution said that despite Shulkin’s claims, “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”
In December, VA issued an updated policy offers physicians greater encouragement to discuss cannabis with their patients.
The new directive urges government doctors to “discuss with the Veteran marijuana use, due to its clinical relevance to patient care, and discuss marijuana use with any Veterans requesting information about marijuana.”
But it maintains the longstanding departmental ban on physician recommendations.
The new website language, however, and the revelation that Shulkin discussed the issue on his overseas trip, shows that VA’s opposition to cannabis is not necessarily set in stone, at least when it comes to research, though the implications aren’t immediately clear.
“No other arguments have worked in the past so this may be a breakthrough,” Sue Sisley, the researcher running the Arizona PTSD trial, told Marijuana Moment in an interview, referring to the webpage update. “VA can definitely be more helpful if they wanted to. There is nothing blocking them.”
Marijuana Opponent Kennedy Reconsiders State Legalization Protections
A Democratic congressman who has acknowledged he is out of step with his party on marijuana policy now says that he doesn’t necessarily support federal crackdowns on states with legalization, even though he has repeatedly voted to allow such enforcement actions.
“The federal government policy on this is incoherent, and the federal government needs to get far more coherent on this,” Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) said in an interview this week. “For states that have put in place the proper safeguards and procedures, I’d be inclined to support those states.”
Legalization supporters were upset when Democrats tapped Kennedy last month to deliver the party’s response to President Trump’s State of the Union address.
As a member of Congress, Kennedy has not only opposed his state’s move to legalize marijuana, but has voted against amendments to shield state medical marijuana laws from federal interference, allow military veterans to access medical cannabis and protect children who use non-psychoactive cannabidiol extracts to treat severe seizure disorders.
One of only a handful of Democrats to oppose those proposals, Kennedy knows that his views on cannabis are out of step with the party.
“I come at it a little bit differently, obviously, than the vast majority of my colleagues,” he said in a separate interview this month. “I think the party is clearly moving in that legalization direction. It might already be there.”
But in the new interview this week, Kennedy made clear that he still has a lot of concerns about legalization, which he campaigned against in Massachusetts.
“There’s a pretty robust voice in the addiction community that points out some of the challenges and how it has had negative impacts on folks,” he said. “Those voices should be listened to as well.”
He also isn’t sold on medical cannabis, which voters legalized in his state in 2012.
“If we are going to treat something like a medicine, it needs to go through the proper medical trials,” he said. “We’re not going through that process.”
But although Kennedy has repeatedly voted in Congress to allow the Department of Justice to arrest and prosecute medical cannabis patients and providers, he says he doesn’t necessarily want the DEA to launch large-scale raids.
“Assuming there are communities that are doing this in a safe and effective way, I certainly could see myself allowing that go forward,” he said. “I don’t want to upend the access to care that these patients need.”
Although he’s “not proposing a crackdown on it,” Kennedy acknowledged that his overall skepticism about cannabis is “not necessarily reflective of the voters of Massachusetts.”
“I want to make sure that we go about this in the right way with the right safeguards in place to not end up in a circumstance where we can get ourselves in trouble,” he said.
Kennedy’s grandfather, former U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, criticized the hypocrisy underlying marijuana criminalization half a century ago.
Photo courtesy of Martin Grondin.
Joe Arpaio Supports Medical Marijuana, “Kind Of”
A former sheriff known for disregarding the rights of immigrants, Latinos and people convicted of drug crimes — and who recently received a pardon from President Trump for his own criminal contempt of court — is voicing support for medical marijuana.
“I wish there was something more we could do with the medical dispensaries to help our veterans [and] people who are sick. I still can’t understand why you can’t go to a drug store on a prescription and get this type of drug,” Joe Arpaio, now a U.S. Senate candidate in Arizona, said. “The medical dispensaries, I kind of support it if it can help the sick people.”
Arpaio was answering a question from Larry King.
This isn’t the first time the former sheriff has spoken in support of medical cannabis.
In 2015, he appeared at an event aimed at educating senior citizens about medical marijuana.
“If this is one thing that really will help them, the medical part of it, and is done legitimately, no diversion, I don’t know, what’s the difference going to the drug store and getting a prescription,” he said at the time.
The opinion of the former Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs special agent appears to have shifted over time. In 2010, he campaigned against Arizona’s medical cannabis ballot measure, which ultimately eked out a narrow victory on Election Day.
But while Arpaio sees medical potential for marijuana, he doesn’t support its broader legalization.
“I don’t support using or selling marijuana across our nation,” he said in the new interview with King. “Actually it’s against the law. It’s against the federal law anyway.”
Last year, Arpaio was found in contempt of federal court after refusing to obey a judge’s order to stop racial profiling practices. He also, at one point, got a tank from the Army and decorated it with “Sheriff Arpaio’s War on Drugs” written on the sides.
Congresswoman Martha McSally, who is also running for the Republican nomination for the Arizona Senate seat, voted against amendments to protect state medical cannabis and marijuana legalization laws from federal interference.
Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat running for the seat, voted in favor of both measures.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
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