A federal district court judge in Manhattan has dismissed a lawsuit challenging marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act.
Plaintiffs in the case, which argues that cannabis is improperly classified in the most restrictive category of Schedule I, include former NFL player Marvin Washington and a 12-year-old girl who treats epilepsy with medical marijuana.
Attorneys and plantiffs told Marijuana Moment in advance of oral arguments earlier this month that they were hopeful the case would force the federal government to finally reschedule marijuana.
But Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ruled on Monday that advocates have “failed to exhaust their administrative remedies” to alter cannabis’s legal status, and should pursue changes through the administration and Congress instead of in the courts.
“[P]laintiffs’ claim is an administrative one, not one premised on the constitution,” he wrote, and “is best understood as a collateral attack on the various administrative determinations not to reclassify marijuana into a different drug schedule.”
Legalization advocates have long argued that marijuana is improperly classified in Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. A key claim of the lawsuit is that there is no rational basis for that categorization.
But Hellerstein wrote that “it is clear that Congress had a rational basis for classifying marijuana in Schedule I, and executive officials in different administrations have consistently retained its placement there… Even if marijuana has current medical uses, I cannot say that Congress acted irrationally in placing marijuana in Schedule I.”
However, the judge, who observers say appeared moved by anecdotes about the plaintiffs’ medical uses of cannabis during oral arguments, wrote that he does not reject out of hand the notion that marijuana can be beneficial:
“I emphasize that this decision is not on the merits of plaintiffs’ claim. Plaintiffs’ amended complaint, which I must accept as true for the purpose of this motion, claims that the use of medical marijuana has, quite literally, saved their lives. One plaintiff in this case, Alexis Bortell, suffers from intractable epilepsy, a severe seizure disorder that once caused her to experience multiple seizures every day. After years of searching for viable treatment options, Alexis began using medical marijuana. Since then, she has gone nearly three years without a single seizure. Jagger Cotte, another plaintiff in the case, suffers from a rare, congenital disease known as Leigh’s disease, which kills approximately 95% of those afflicted before they reach the age of four. After turning to medical marijuana, Jagger’s life has been extended by two years and his pain has become manageable. I highlight plaintiffs’ experience to emphasize that this decision should not be understood as a factual finding that marijuana lacks any medical use in the United States, for the authority to make that determination is vested in the administrative process.”
Also in the opinion, Hellerstein ruled that one plaintiff, the Cannabis Cultural Association, lacks standing to sue.
“Plaintiffs’ racial animus claim is based on a patchwork of statements by former Nixon Administration officials, many of which were made after the passage of the CSA,” he wrote. “Even taking these allegations as true, plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that the relevant decisionmaker — Congress — passed the CSA and placed marijuana in Schedule I in order to intentionally discriminate against African Americans.”
Hellerstein dismissed every other claim in the lawsuit, as well, making it clear he’s done with the case.
“Because plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under any constitutional theory, all of plaintiffs’ remaining claims are also dismissed,” he wrote. “For the reasons stated herein, defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint is granted. Plaintiffs have already amended their complaint once, and I find that further amendments would be futile.”
Joseph Bondy, an attorney on the case, said the legal team is considering their next steps.
“We believe the court didn’t properly consider our arguments, even declining to allow us to be heard on some points—particularly our equal protection argument,” he told Marijuana Moment. “We are exploring all options in furtherance of winning this case, whether through direct appeal or reconsideration, and will keep the community abreast of all developments. The legal team remains committed to the case and the cause, and thanks everyone for their unwavering support.”
Read Hellerstein’s full opinion below:
As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.
NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.
Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.
Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”
“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.
Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access
In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.
The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congressman Files Marijuana Bill After Leaving Republican Party
In one of his first legislative acts since leaving the Republican Party earlier this month amid a feud with the president, Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) filed a bill on Monday that would let states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because bipartisan legislation that would accomplish the same goal has already been filed this Congress.
But unlike the nearly identical Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, Amash’s new bill excludes one provision that would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the effects of cannabis legalization on road safety and issue a report on its findings within a year of the law’s enactment.
That language states that the GAO must study “traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries” in legal cannabis states, actions taken by those states to “address marihuana-impaired driving,” testing standards being used to detect impaired driving and federal initiatives “aiming to assist States that have legalized marihuana with traffic safety.”
Given Amash’s libertarian leanings, it stands to reason that he opposes spending government dollars to conduct the research and simply supports the broader states’ rights intent of the original legislation.
That would also put him at odds with social justice advocates who feel that the STATES Act itself doesn’t go far enough and are pushing for more comprehensive legislation that includes additional provisions addressing social equity and restorative justice for people harmed by drug law enforcement.
Members of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee heard that debate play out during a historic hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition last week.
A newly formed coalition of civil rights and drug reform organizations, including the ACLU, is also insisting on passing wide-ranging legislation to deschedule cannabis entirely that also invests in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
Amash is a long-standing critic of the war on drugs and earlier this year signed on as a cosponsor of a separate bill that would federally deschedule marijuana. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, filed that legislation, which is also silent on social equity provisions.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 8, 2019
Gabbard also introduced a separate bill that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies to study the impacts of legalization. True to form, Amash declined to add his name to that measure as well.
Read the text of Amash’s new cannabis bill below:
Photo courtesy of Kyle Jaeger.