The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) was in federal appeals court Tuesday arguing that it and its members had the right to force the federal government to correct inaccurate statements about the therapeutic properties of marijuana. Lawyers for the Obama administration opposed them.
In 2004, ASA filed a petition under the Data Quality Act seeking to force the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to correct its statements that marijuana has no accepted medical use in the United States. The Data Quality Act requires federal government agencies to use reliable science when making regulations and disseminating information.
After two years of delays, HHS rejected ASA's petition. The group then filed suit in federal district court to force HHS to comply, but the trial judge threw out the lawsuit, finding that the act did not provide for judicial review. ASA then appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is where Tuesday's hearing took place.
"The science to support medical marijuana is overwhelming," said ASA executive director Steph Sherer. "It's time for the federal government to acknowledge the efficacy of medical marijuana and stop holding science hostage to politics."
The Obama administration has vowed to make science -- not ideology -- the basis for federal government policies. On March 9, President Obama issued a memorandum to all executive department and agency heads saying: "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions," and calling for "transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking."
But it had other concerns last Tuesday, when Justice Department lawyers argued against ASA in court. Assistant US Attorney Alisa Klein told a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit that the law allowing private citizens to seek correction of government information had "no judicially enforceable rights" and that it requires only that agencies review such requests -- not that they act on them. Otherwise, she said, the courts would be swamped with requests to second-guess government decisions on a multitude of subjects.
The government's position would make the law meaningless, retorted Alan Morrison, founder of Public Citizen's Litigation Group, who argued the case along with ASA chief counsel Joe Elford. While some disputes are too subjective for courts to intervene, others can be measured objectively. "Two plus two is four, not five," Morrison noted. The law provides judges a role in keeping the government honest, he added.
Members of the three-judge panel seemed torn. "The statute is amazing and troubling," said Judge Marsha Berzon. But she told Klein that the law appears to allow people affected by government misinformation to get it corrected, under court order if necessary.
"The case before the 9th Circuit is about the right of private parties to seek action to challenge the government's dissemination of false information," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "When HHS says on its web site that there is no currently accepted medical use of marijuana in the US, we and our members suffer by having to counter that disinformation. We have to educate the public, public officials, physicians, and lawyers on the reality of medical marijuana, and we are using that as giving us standing for the lawsuit."
ASA executive director Sherer herself claims to have suffered from government misinformation. In the group's brief to the appeals court, it relates how Sherer rejected medical marijuana as a treatment for her condition based on government statements it had no medical value. Only after suffering serious side effects from conventional medications and at her physician's urging did she finally try medical marijuana, and then found it brought her relief.
"Our aim is to correct the misinformation that the federal government is disseminating about medical marijuana, specifically that marijuana has no medicinal value," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "We are using an administrative mechanism -- the Data Quality Act -- in order to achieve that, but the government has so far refused to respond substantively to our petition."
A victory at the 9th Circuit would mean that the ASA lawsuit could move forward. That would most likely mean the case would be remanded back to district court to force the federal government to issue a substantive response to the ASA petition.
"If they agree their information is inaccurate and not based on scientific evidence, they would simply correct the statements they are making," said Hermes. "But if they do not choose to admit that they are disseminating unscientific information, we may have to challenge them on the merits again in district court," he said.
While an eventual victory in the case would have no immediate impact on federal medical marijuana policy, said Hermes, it could help lay the foundations for moving marijuana off Schedule I as a dangerous drug with no accepted medical use. "That could be the first domino in a series of falling dominos that will affect federal policy," he said.
The 9th Circuit is now considering the case.