25 Years Ago: DEA’s Own Administrative Law Judge Ruled Cannabis Should Be Reclassified Under Federal LawSeptember 5, 2013
Friday, September 6, 2013 marks the 25-year anniversary of an administrative ruling which determined that cannabis possesses accepted medical utility and ought to be reclassified accordingly under federal law.
The ruling, issued in 1988 by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis Young “In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling,” determined: “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
Young continued: “It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”
Judge Young concluded: “The administrative law judge recommends that the Administrator conclude that the marijuana plant considered as a whole has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, that there is no lack of accepted safety for use of it under medical supervision and that it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II [of the federal Controlled Substances Act].”
Judge Young’s ruling was in response to an administrative petition filed in 1972 by NORML which sought to reschedule cannabis under federal law. Federal authorities initially refused to accept the petition until mandated to do so by the US Court of Appeals in 1974, and then refused to properly process it until again ordered by the Court in 1982. In 1986, 14-years after NORML filed its initial petition, the DEA finally held public hearings on the issue before Judge Young, who rendered his decision two years later.
However, then-DEA Administrator John Lawn ultimately rejected Young’s determination, and in 1994, the Court of Appeals allowed Lawn’s reversal to stand – maintaining marijuana’s present classification as a Schedule I prohibited substance with “no accepted medical use,” and a “lack of accepted safety … under medical supervision.”
In July 2011, the DEA rejected a separate marijuana rescheduling petition, initially filed in 2002. This past January, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the DEA’s decision, ruling that insufficient clinical studies exist to warrant a judicial review of cannabis’ federally prohibited status. Petitioners have appealed the ruling to the US Supreme Court, which may or may not elect to review the matter.
The criminalization and prohibition of cannabis has been an abject failure and should be ended as a federal public policy, according to the findings of a new report issued this week by the National Lawyers Guild.
States the report:
“The NLG believes that ending the prohibition of cannabis would offer multiple benefits. Legalization would help transform the marijuana industry … into a stable regulated one. It would significantly reduce infringements on civil liberties and lower the arrest and incarceration rates of people of color. Changing the criminal status of marijuana would lower the costs of law enforcement and protect people from entering the criminal justice system. Finally, legalization would remove restrictions currently impeding [the] study of medical marijuana and allow more users to acquire treatment if necessary. Each of these goals is consistent with sound economic, criminal justice, and public health policies.”
The authors of the report recommend rescheduling cannabis from its present Schedule I illicit classification, revisiting the United State’s involvement in international drug control treaties, and ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement agencies. The report also call for the passage of additional statewide legislative and initiative efforts depenalizing marijuana use and possession.
Full text of the report, “High Crimes: Strategies to Further Marijuana Legalization Initiatives,” appears online here.
Members of Congress reintroduced legislation this week to protect state-authorized medical marijuana patients from federal prosecution.
House Bill 689, the States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would ensure that medical cannabis patients in states that have approved its use will no longer have to fear arrest or prosecution from federal law enforcement agencies. It states, “No provision of the Controlled Substances Act shall prohibit or otherwise restrict in a State in which marijuana may be prescribed or recommended by a physician for medical use under applicable State law.”
The measure also calls for the federal government to reclassify cannabis so that it is no longer categorized as a Schedule I prohibited substance with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It states: “Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration shall, based upon the recommendation under paragraph (1), issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for the rescheduling of marijuana within the Controlled Substances Act, which shall include a recommendation to list marijuana as other than a Schedule I or Schedule II.”
In January, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied petitioners request to overturn the Obama administration’s July 2011 rejection of an administrative petition that sought to initiate hearings regarding the reclassification of marijuana under federal law.
Separate federal legislation, House Bill 710: The Truth in Trials Act, which provides an affirmative defense in federal court for defendants whose actions were in compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their state was also reintroduced this week in the US House of Representatives.
Those who wish to contact their member of Congress in support of these federal measures can do so by clicking here.
In a 28-page decision, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has denied petitioners request to overturn the July 2011 denial by the Drug Enforcement Administration to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under federal law.
In October 2002, the Coalition to Reschedule Cannabis, a coalition of reform organizations including NORML, ASA, Patients Out of Time and High Times, among others, petitioned the DEA to reschedule marijuana as a Schedule III, IV, or V drug. Following years of administrative delay, on July 8, 2011, the DEA denied the petition, finding that “[t]here is no currently accepted medical use for marijuana in the United States,” and that “[t]he limited existing clinical evidence is not adequate to warrant rescheduling of marijuana under the CSA.”
Petitioners then sought review in the federal Court of Appeals, alleging the decision by the DEA was arbitrary and capricious when it concluded that marijuana lacks a “currently accepted medical use” and has a “high potential for abuse.” They ask this court to remand the case to the DEA for reconsideration of its decision.
Written by Senior Circuit Judge Edwards, the decision ruled “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, which we approved in Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics v. DEA, 15 F.3d 1131 (D.C. Cir. 1994), define ‘currently accepted medical use’ to require, inter alia, ‘adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy.’ Id. at1135. We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist.
“In its scientific and medical evaluation,” the court held, “DHHS concluded that marijuana lacks a currently accepted medical use in the United States. In reaching this conclusion, DHHS applied the DEA’s established five-prong test, which requires a known and reproducible drug chemistry, adequate safety studies, adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating efficacy, acceptance of the drug by qualified experts, and widely available scientific evidence.”
“We will not disturb the decision of an agency that has ‘examine[d] the relevant data and articulate[d] a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.’”
In this case, we need only look at one factor, the existence of “adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy,” to resolve Petitioners’ claim.
At bottom, the parties’ dispute in this case turns on the agency’s interpretation of its own regulations. Petitioners construe “adequate and well-controlled studies” to mean peer-reviewed, published studies suggesting marijuana’s medical efficacy. The DEA, in contrast, interprets that factor to require something more scientifically rigorous.
In making this assessment, we must “remind ourselves that our role in the Congressional scheme is not to give an independent judgment of our own, but rather to determine whether the expert agency entrusted with regulatory responsibility has taken an irrational or arbitrary view of the evidence assembled before it.
The DEA’s construction of its regulation is eminently reasonable. Therefore, we are obliged to defer to the agency’s interpretation of “adequate and well-controlled studies.” Judged against the DEA’s standard, we find nothing in the record that could move us to conclude that the agency failed to prove by substantial evidence that such studies confirming marijuana’s medical efficacy do not exist.”
Petitioners are considering their legal options at this time.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear opening arguments next week in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s refusal to consider reclassifying cannabis as a schedule I prohibited substance under federal law.
At issue in the case is whether the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) acted appropriately when the agency last year 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.
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.”
Commenting on the upcoming hearing in a press release, Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA) said: “Medical marijuana patients are finally getting their day in court. What’s at stake in this case is nothing less than our country’s scientific integrity and the imminent needs of millions of patients.” Elford will be arguing the case before the D.C. Circuit. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday, October 16th.
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 Director Jon Gettman in 1995, but was rejected by the DEA in 2001.
Further information on the lawsuit is available at: http://safeaccessnow.org. Additional information on the 2002 petition to reschedule cannabis is available at: http://www.drugscience.org/.