In a ruling Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit denied a petition seeking to reschedule marijuana. The court held that while petitioners had presented some evidence of marijuana's medical efficacy, there was not enough to override the federal government's decision to place marijuana on Schedule I, the most restrictive classification.
The ruling came in Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration. It comes more than 10 years after the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, led by Jon Gettman, originally filed its petition in October 2002 and 40 years after NORML first filed a petition seeking to reschedule the herb. The Coalition petition was denied in 2011, after ASA sued the Obama administration for delaying its response. The current appeal was the first time in two decades that a federal court has reviewed the issue of whether there exists adequate scientific evidence to reschedule marijuana.
The first challenge for petitioners was that of standing to sue. The presence of disabled Air Force veteran and Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access member Michael Krawitz among the petitioners provided that standing. Krawitz, who has tussled with the Department of Veterans Affairs over his use of medical marijuana, "has suffered injury-in-fact because he must shoulder a financial cost for services he would otherwise obtain for free of charge from the VA" and thus has standing to sue, the court held.
But that was just the threshold question. On the substantive issue of rescheduling marijuana, the court came down squarely on the side of the federal government.
"The question before the court is not whether marijuana could have some medical benefits," wrote Senior Circuit Court Judge Harry Edwards for the majority. "Rather, the limited question that we address is whether the DEA’s decision declining to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under the CSA was arbitrary and capricious… On the record before us, we hold that the DEA’s denial of the rescheduling petition survives review under the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard. The petition asks the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III, IV, or V drug, which, under the terms of the CSA, requires a 'currently accepted medical use.' The DEA's regulations… define 'currently accepted medical use' to require, inter alia, 'adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy.' … We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist."
"The court says the DEA didn't act arbitrarily and capriciously, but if that wasn't arbitrary and capricious, I'm going back to the dictionary," said a frustrated Krawitz. "This is an issue with 70% supporting change, yet nothing happens. We have a handful of champions in Congress, but where is one person in the federal government who represents us? How can there be so little integrity at the National Institutes for Health and the FDA, where they are supposed to be there to protect our interests?"
"We're stuck in a Catch-22 -- the DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While there is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana's safety and efficacy, the specific clinical trials necessary to gain FDA approval have long been obstructed by the federal government itself."
"It's more of the same from the federal courts. I'm disappointed, but not surprised," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "There has been a long line of court decisions affirming the federal government's dictatorial power to make arbitrary decisions about drugs. Ironically, this decision comes on the same day as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Women in this country have the right to terminate the live of their fetuses, but not to smoke a joint."
"To deny that sufficient evidence is lacking on the medical efficacy of marijuana is to ignore a mountain of well-documented studies that conclude otherwise," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which appealed the denial of the rescheduling petition in January of last year. "The Court has unfortunately agreed with the Obama Administration's unreasonably raised bar on what qualifies as an 'adequate and well-controlled' study, thereby continuing their game of 'Gotcha.'"
ASA said it will seek an en banc review of the decision by the full DC Circuit and will go to the Supreme Court if necessary. The group said it will argue that the Obama administration has acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" by shifting its definition of what constitutes "medical efficacy." The administration now argues that Stage II and III clinical trials are necessary to show efficacy, while ASA contends that the more than 200 peer-reviewed studies it cited in legal briefs in the case meet the standard.
"The Obama Administration's legal efforts will keep marijuana out of reach for millions of qualified patients who would benefit from its use," said Elford. "It's time for President Obama to change his harmful policy with regard to medical marijuana and treat this as a public health issue, something entirely within the capability and authority of the executive office."
While ASA pursues its appeals in the courts, it is also trying to turn up the heat on Congress and the administration. With rescheduling through the courts blocked -- at least pending a favorable ruling on appeal -- that is where the action will be.
"I'm not optimistic that the courts are going to change their position," said Gieringer. "That means we will have to put pressure on the administration or Congress to do it."
But it's important to see that rescheduling is not an end in itself, but a means, said Gieringer.
"Rescheduling in itself would accomplish very little in the real world," he pointed out. "It would not end the federal-state conflict on marijuana, and even if it were rescheduled, there is still no FDA-approved supply. All of the marijuana out there today would still be an illegal controlled substance without FDA approval."
Marijuana policy reform is not just about real world effects; it is also about perceptions, and rescheduling marijuana would have been something of a game changer, as Gieringer noted.
"Symbolically, of course, it would have been huge," he said. "It would open the way for prescriptions and help unblock research -- the controls on Schedule II drugs are not nearly as fearsome. Still, rescheduling would have been a baby step, but a lot of other stuff has to happen, and that requires an act of Congress, and I haven't seen any sign of that."
But the federal courts have so far made clear that they will defer to Congress and the executive branch on these issues. That means that's where the battle will have to be won.