Drug Policy

Misplaced Marijuana

Rescheduling petition


Since 1970, when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has been listed on Schedule I, which is 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. Last October, for the first time in two decades, a federal appeals court heard arguments for moving marijuana into a less restrictive category.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) first challenged marijuana's legal status in 1972, eventually winning the support of the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, who in 1988 declared it "abundantly clear" that the plant 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 National Director Jon Gettman filed a second rescheduling petition, focusing on marijuana's abuse potential. The DEA rejected that 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, nearly a decade after receiving it. Now Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a patient advocacy group, is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn that decision. 

ASA argues that the DEA acted "arbitrarily and capriciously," in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, by dismissing evidence of marijuana's medical benefits, insisting on unreasonably strict criteria for whether a medical use is "accepted," failing to judge cannabis in relation to other scheduled drugs, and equating the plant's popularity as a recreational intoxicant with a high potential for abuse. The DEA officially treats marijuana as more dangerous than morphine, cocaine, or methamphetamine.

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