Washington, DC: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard arguments on Tuesday in support of reclassifying cannabis under federal law.
At issue in the case is whether the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) acted appropriately in 2011 when it denied an administrative petition – initially filed by a coalition of public interest organizations, including NORML, in 2002 – that called on the agency to initiate hearings to reassess the present classification of cannabis.
Arguing for the plaintiffs, Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with the organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA), said that sufficient studies exist to allow for reclassification hearings to take place.
An attorney for the federal government countered that adequate clinical trials have not yet been conducted that would allow any "expert to reach a conclusion about the medical utility of marijuana."
Under federal law, schedule I substances must possess three specific criteria: "a high potential for abuse;" "no currently accepted medical use in treatment;" and "a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug … under medical supervision." In its 2011 denial of petitioners’ rescheduling request, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart alleged that cannabis possesses all three criteria, claiming: "[T]here are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving (marijuana’s) efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts. … At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy."
By contrast, a recent scientific review of clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of cannabis concluded, "Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking."
The case is Americans for Safe Access, et al, v. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 11-1265.
NORML previously filed a similar rescheduling petition with the DEA in 1972, but was not granted a federal hearing on the issue until 1986. In 1988, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young ruled that marijuana did not meet the legal criteria of a Schedule I prohibited drug and should be reclassified. Then-DEA Administrator John Lawn rejected Young’s determination, a decision the D.C. Court of Appeals eventually affirmed in 1994.
A subsequent petition was filed by former NORML Executive Director Jon Gettman in 1995, but was rejected by the DEA in 2001.