Federal Appeals Court Hears Challenge to Marijuana's Legal Status


Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in a case challenging the Drug Enforcement Administration's refusal to reclassify marijuana so it can be legally used as a medicine. Since 1970, when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has remained on Schedule I, a category supposedly reserved for drugs with a high abuse potential and no accepted medical value that cannot be used safely even under a doctor's supervision. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) first challenged marijuana's legal status in 1972, eventually winning the support of an administrative law judge, Francis Young, who in 1988 declared it "abundantly clear" that the drug has "a currently accepted medical use." Young, who called marijuana "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man," was overruled by DEA Administrator John Lawn. In 1995 former NORML Executive Director Jon Gettman filed a second rescheduling petition, focusing on marijuana's abuse potential, which the DEA rejected in 2001. The latest petition, filed a year later by a coalition of activists, cited state laws allowing patients to use marijuana as well as recent research confirming its therapeutic value. As usual, the DEA dragged its feet, finally rejecting the petition last year. Now Americans for Safe Access is appealing that decision.

This is the first time in nearly two decades that a federal appeals court has heard arguments about marijuana's Schedule I status, which a group of researchers at the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research politely called "untenable" in a recent review of the literature. Perhaps more than any other policy, the Obama administration's continued defense of this classification, which puts marijuana in a more restrictive category than cocaine, morphine, or methamphetamine, belies the president's avowed commitment to sound, unpoliticized science. California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer notes that the DEA "summarily discounted substantial scientific evidence showing that cannabis has medical efficacy." He says the agency insists that "only expensive, 'Phase 3' FDA efficacy studies are acceptable, while at the same making such studies impossible by blocking approval of the necessary research facilities." Although other Schedule I drugs are produced by private, DEA-licensed labs, when it comes to marijuana the agency has refused to allow competition with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers' only legal source of the drug. That policy is also the target of federal litigation.