The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is finding itself in court over marijuana again after scientists filed a lawsuit against the agency, requesting “secret” documents that they allege DEA used to delay action on expanding cannabis research.
The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) is behind the suit. It’s one of more than 30 organizations that have submitted applications to DEA to become licensed cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
Some background should be noted: In 2016, DEA announced it would expand marijuana research by approving additional growers beyond the sole source that has existed for half a century at the University of Mississippi. But after more than three years, applicants heard silence, and SRI filed an initial lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately holding up the process. A court mandated that it take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
This month, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party. A public comment period is now open, after which point the agency says it will finally approve an unspecified number of additional growers.
But what really accounted for the delay?
According to the plaintiffs in this new suit, after DEA said it would accept more cultivators, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) secretly issued an opinion that interprets international treaty obligations as making it impossible to carry out the 2016 proposed rule while maintaining compliance.
The new revised rule aims to address the problem, in part by shifting jurisdiction over the cannabis to a single agency, DEA, which would purchase and technically own all of the cannabis grown by approved cultivators, and would then later sell the product directly to researchers.
That OLC document, which is not public, is the basis of SRI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Wednesday and requests that the Justice Department be found guilty of unlawfully failing to make records available related to its interpretation of the Single Convention treaty, including the OLC opinion. It further states that DEA should release those documents and pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.
Matt Zorn, an attorney working the case, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that it’s not clear what’s contained in the OLC opinion and that the uncertainty is “entirely the point” of the suit.
“I think we all know vaguely what it says—the subject matter of it—but we don’t know what it actually says,” he said. “That’s important because you need to know what that instruction was or what their interpretation of the law is to assess whether what they’re doing now is appropriate.”
The suit claims that SRI, “as a non-commercial company dedicated to advancing the state of medical care through clinical research, is directly harmed by this unlawful secrecy.”
“Because Defendants have failed to fully disclose their re-interpretation of federal law and treaty obligations as the law requires, Plaintiff lacks information necessary to protect its legal rights, including the right to have its application to manufacture marijuana for research processed in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and the [Controlled Substances Act],” the filing states.
SRI’s research objective for cannabis is to determine potential therapeutic benefits for veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “While DEA’s unlawful and dilatory conduct harms the public generally, the secrecy and delay have been especially harmful to our nations’ veterans,” the suit says.
“We deserve not only to know the scientific truth about medical marijuana use, but candor from our government, which includes disclosure of the ‘secret law’ the agency continues to rely on as a basis to delay and ultimately revamp the process for researching and manufacturing marijuana in this country,” the filing says. “Plaintiff brings this FOIA action so can understand the legal basis—if there is one—for the government’s conduct surrounding the Growers Program.”
While SRI acknowledged that DEA last week announced its revised rule change proposal, the suit states that the explanation about how it arrived at its determination “leaves Plaintiff and the public in the dark with respect to several critical considerations.” For example, it alleges, the notice doesn’t account for how the Justice Department advised the agency on the matter and which parts of the amended proposal would make the action compliant with international treaties.
“The answer to these questions and others presumably lies in the undisclosed OLC Opinion and related records that animated DOJ’s decision to sideline the Growers Program and prompted DEA to embark on this notice-and-comment rulemaking in the first place… In sum, using a secret OLC Opinion interpreting the CSA and a 1961 international treaty, DEA delayed processing applications to cultivate marijuana for research and now proposes to radically revamp federal law through rulemaking—rules which will loom large over the future of medical marijuana research, manufacture, and distribution going forward.”
The plaintiffs argue that DEA violated federal statute that prohibits the creation of a “secret law.” The statute says that federal agencies must make records—including final opinions and policy interpretations not published in the Federal Register—public.
“To block the Growers Program, DOJ formulated—through the OLC Opinion and related records—and DEA adopted to an undisclosed interpretation of the Single Convention and federal law contrary to the view espoused and published by DEA in the August 2016 Policy Statement, and contrary to the view of the State Department,” it continues, apparently referencing a letter the State Department sent to a senator in response to questions about the role of international treaties as it concerns expanding cannabis cultivation facilities.
In that letter, the department said nothing about the Single Convention prevents member nations from increasing the number of such facilities. “If a party to the Single Convention issued multiple licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, that fact alone would not be a sufficient basis to conclude that the party was acting in contravention of the Convention,” it read.
Read the State Department’s responses on international treaties and marijuana below:
If the new lawsuit’s allegations prove accurate, it could help explain the role of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the anti-marijuana official who was reportedly involved in blocking research expansion.
The suit, which was first reported by Politico, goes on to say:
“For more than three years, Defendants relied on this undisclosed interpretation, contained in the OLC Opinion and related records, to make an end-run around the Administrative Procedure Act by unlawfully withholding and unreasonably delaying agency action on marijuana cultivation applications. The OLC Opinion has guided DEA’s actions—and its inaction… The government’s unlawful conduct under FOIA prevents Plaintiff and those similarly situated from timely and effectively vindicating legal rights under the Administrative Procedure Act, effectively rendering its protections and judicial review provisions meaningless.”
To resolve the issue, SRI said it wants DEA to be held accountable for violating federal law, release the documents and compensate them for the legal action. While this is a FOIA-related suit, the institute didn’t first seek the documents through a standard document request but instead filed the case under the law’s “Reading Room provision” that allows courts to force federal agencies to put records online, according to a Ninth Circuit ruling last year.
Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, told Marijuana Moment that the institute has generally had a good relationship with DEA over the years and doesn’t expect that it would unduly deny their application in retaliation for the institute’s repeated legal actions against the agency.
“I couldn’t fathom that that would happen, but I hope that the merits of our application are so clear that it would carry us forward,” she said. However, these licensing agreements are “not always a merit-based process so it is possible that if politics get deeply involved here that there could be a situation where licenses are awarded to friends of the government. We’re still praying that there is some merit-based system.”
Researchers and lawmakers have made clear that the current availability of federally authorized cannabis for research raises questions about the accuracy of tests that rely on it, as the quality is insufficient. As of now, there’s only one facility at the University of Mississippi that’s authorized to grow cannabis for researchers. The products developed at the university have been widely criticized by scientists and lawmakers. A study indicated that the facility’s cannabis is chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana available in state-legal markets.
“If adopted, these proposed rules would radically overhaul how medical marijuana manufacture and research will proceed in this country,” the plaintiffs wrote. “Better supply is needed for better research, and better research is needed not only because millions use medical marijuana every day, but also to facilitate informed policymaking at the federal and state levels, including legislation and drug scheduling decisions.”
Read the full lawsuit against DEA below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.