The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it will not hear a case challenging the constitutionality of federal marijuana prohibition.
A coalition of medical cannabis advocates, including former NFL player Marvin Washington, young patient Alexis Bortell and military veteran Jose Belen, initially filed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2017. But while the case has gradually moved through the judiciary, the decision by the high court represents a sound defeat for the challenge.
The justices met to discuss this and other pending matters last week. Activists were hopeful that their arguments—combined with the support they received from advocacy groups and members of Congress—would compel the Supreme Court to take up their suit. But the justices ultimately listed it among the cases that they are declining to take up.
That’s not especially surprising given the small percentage of cases that the high court accepts, but it’s a major setback for the activists nonetheless.
“While not surprising, as less than one percent of all petitions to the Supreme Court get a hearing, it is still very disappointing, as we been fighting for this case for over three years now,” Sebastien Cotte, whose son Jagger was a plaintiff in the case, told Marijuana Moment.
“However, we must not forget that this case has been groundbreaking on so many levels. Not only a did federal judge say on record that looking at Alexis, Jagger and Jose that it is undeniable that cannabis has medical properties, but we also believe that this case moved the needle closer to descheduling of cannabis by bringing extra awareness to the unfairness of the current classification of cannabis,” he said. “We are confident our case will help another case down the road achieve the ultimate goal, as everyone knows that it is not a question of if cannabis will be descheduled, but when.”
The case was rejected in a series of rulings by lower courts, but attorneys for the plaintiffs said those decisions made it clear their only source of acceptable relief would come from the Supreme Court.
That’s because both a U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit previously determined that advocates would have to first seek administrative relief through existing channels such as a petition asking DEA directly to reclassify cannabis.
The plaintiffs said they wouldn’t go that route because they believe the request would be denied by DEA and because the agency would, at best, reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which they say could create additional harms in terms of patient access to the plant.
Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) each signed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit last month, stating that the Schedule I status of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) “creates an unconstitutional framework that unfairly burdens their constituents.”
“Disappointed with the High Court’s decision not to hear the case of cannabis medical patients and address unjust and unconstitutional federal drug laws,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment after the justices’ decision was announced. “As we continue the fight in the halls of Congress, it’s more important than ever that we pass the MORE Act, our bipartisan legislation to legalize marijuana and end the failed war on drugs that has hurt so many.”
Additional briefs in support of the lawsuit were filed by NORML, International Cannabis Bar Association, National Cannabis Industry Association, Arcview Group, Last Prisoner Project, Americans for Safe Access, Minority Cannabis Business Association and others.
DEA has on numerous past occasions denied petitions to change marijuana’s status under the CSA.
“For every Brown v. Board of Education, there are dozens of earlier, lesser-known legal battles which set the stage for eventual changes in the law to right the wrongs of the past and the problems of the present,” said Michael Hiller of Hiller, PC, the pro bono lead counsel in the case. “Regrettably, today’s decision falls into the latter category, not the former.”
“We will continue our fight for legalization until the laws criminalizing cannabis are eradicated,” he said. “This is a civil and human rights issue which, sooner or later, must and will be addressed.”
This latest case isn’t the only cannabis-related lawsuit DEA has faced in recent years.
Lawyers representing a group of scientists and military veterans filed a comprehensive brief in federal court earlier this month, outlining their case challenging decisions about the classification of marijuana made by the agency. A week later, a major military veterans group urged the court to take up that case.
The plaintiffs initially filed that lawsuit against the federal agency in May, contending that DEA’s justification for maintaining a Schedule I status for cannabis is unconstitutional. DEA attempted to quash the case by filing a motion to dismiss, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected that request in August.
The plaintiffs also sued the agency last year in a separate case, alleging that it had deliberately delayed approving additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes despite pledging to expand the number of those facilities in 2016.
A court mandated that DEA take steps to make good on its promise, and that suit was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
In March, 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.
The same scientists behind the original case filed another suit against DEA, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications.
That was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released in April as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels that its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.
Separately, a federal court recently ruled that California regulators must comply with a DEA subpoena demanding information about marijuana businesses that they are investigating.
This story was updated to add comment from Blumenauer, Hiller and Cotte.
GOP Congressman Files Bill To Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana From Losing Benefits
A Republican congressman has filed the second piece of marijuana reform legislation to be introduced so far in the new 117th Congress—this one aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law.
The proposal from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who filed a more expansive version of the measure last year, would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the new bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.
That said, the version Steube introduced last year contained a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for marijuana.
But that language was omitted from this year’s bill, which could create barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.
Carson Steelman, communications director in Steube’s office, told Marijuana Moment that removing that component was politically necessary to advance the previous version through a House committee last year as an amendment to another bill.
“This bill was able to pass through markup with the removal of that portion,” he said. “Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion.”
Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, applauded Steube for the overall bill, saying that “we consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry.”
“However, we are disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care—including cannabis,” he told Marijuana Moment.
But while the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.
The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act had 19 cosponsors last session, including eight Republicans and 11 Democrats.
This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress, both of which are sponsored by Steube. His first bill would simply require that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—a move that the congressman said would free up research into the plant.
That proposal is identical to legislation he filed last year.
While rescheduling is backed by President Joe Biden, who remains opposed to adult-use legalization, it’s not the reform that advocates are getting behind. There are high hopes that a more comprehensive completely remove marijuana from the CSA—while promoting social equity—will move through the 117th Congress.
A bill to accomplish that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, activists are waiting for the legislation to be taken back up with a better chance of making it to Biden’s desk.
That bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president to adopt a pro-legalization position.
Read the text of the veterans-focused marijuana bill below:
Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure
North Dakota’s secretary of state on Friday approved the format of a proposed marijuana initiative, clearing the way for activists to collect signatures to place it on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change.
Rather, Rep. Jason Dockter (R) said he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.
Dockter’s House Bill 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed.
Licensed cultivation facilities that provide cannabis products to retailers “may grow an amount of marijuana sufficient to meet the demands of the public.”
Under the proposal, legal cannabis sales would begin on February 1, 2022.
The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
It’s not clear if they will now still pursue previously announced plans for 2022 in light of the new bill, which they said they are “proud of” and is the result of engaging lawmakers in more than six months’ worth of conversations.
Meanwhile, a separate activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said on Friday that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.
“I am glad the North Dakota legislature is coming to the realization that legalization will move forward with or without them,” Jody Vetter, chairwoman for that effort, the ND for Freedom of Cannabis Act, told Marijuana Moment.
She added that while the Dockter’s bill is “a step in the right direction toward ending prohibition, there are concerns,” pointing to the lack of legal home cultivation and remaining criminal charges for certain cannabis-related activity.
“Criminal charges surrounding possession should only apply if someone is found to be selling cannabis without proper license or contributing to minors,” Vetter said. “We are moving forward with the ND For Freedom of Cannabis Act. Home growing is essential for any legal program and an overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are ready to stop criminally charging citizens for simply possessing cannabis.”
Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that “though this isn’t an ideal legalization bill, it’s a significant testament to the strength of our movement that legalization opponents are now preemptively filing their own legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”
“These lawmakers are aware that a majority of their constituents support legalization, and you have to give them some credit for acknowledging that,” he said.
The bill contains a number of restrictions on labeling and advertising, as well as penalties for impaired driving. A health council would be tasked with developing further regulations on issues such as the allowable amount of THC in edibles and testing standards.
“I’m not for [legalization] at all, but I understand that it’s coming, and we have to address the issue,” Dockter told Inforum. “I’m trying something different in government—we’re trying to be proactive and not be reactive.”
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.
Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.
Aside from the new broad legalization legislation, state lawmakers also recently introduced a separate bill to significantly expand the decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state. The proposal, which was filed last week, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.
Read the North Dakota cannabis legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Bill To Allow Medical Marijuana Use At Hotels And Airbnbs Filed In Missouri
Hotels, Airbnbs and other lodging facilities in Missouri would be allowed to let medical marijuana patients consume cannabis on their properties under a recently filed bill.
The legislation, titled the “Reduction of Illegal Public Consumption by Allowing for Compassionate Access to Medical Marijuana Act,” would require the state Department of Health and Senior Services to create a new “medical marijuana lodging establishment” license for the facilities. They would have to submit an application and a $50 fee to the agency in order to obtain the new approval.
Once licensed, lodging facilities would have to follow certain rules such as confirming that guests are registered medical cannabis patients, posting signage that says marijuana can be consumed on the property and ensuring that consumption areas are at least 25 feet away from sections where its prohibited.
Places that knowingly permit cannabis to be used without a license would be subject to a $1,000 fine for a first offense, $2,000 for a second, $5,000 for a third and the suspension of their business license for a fourth.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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Theoretically, if this bill is approved, it could promote tourism in the state, as it specifically allows hotels and other facilities to accept out-of-state medical cannabis certifications for guests.
There’s a similar policy on the books in Colorado, where a bill providing for social consumption site licenses was signed last year.
In a new related study, researchers took a look at the prevalence of Airbnbs allowing marijuana consumptions in Denver and found that it’s surprisingly common—much more so than for tobacco use.
“A substantial number of Airbnb listings in Denver, Colorado permit cannabis use and venues permitting cannabis use may be more likely to also permit tobacco smoking,” the abstract says.
About one-in-four facilities included details about their marijuana policy in the listing, and 76 percent of those permitted cannabis use while 31 percent let guests use tobacco.
The focus of the study, published this month in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, was to analyze indoor clear air issues related to marijuana at Airbnbs. It concluded that the facilities should “consider including cannabis use in house rules in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis to help guests identify spaces with clean air.”
Missouri’s marijuana laws might not be as progressive as Colorado’s, but a Republican lawmaker did file a joint resolution last month that calls for adult-use legalization to be placed before voters on the 2022 ballot.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.