California Judge Will Decide If Marijuana’s Drug Classification Is Constitutional
A judge in California is preparing to rule on whether the federal government’s classification of Marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the most dangerous category, is unconstitutional.
Presiding in Sacramento over a case involving 9 men accused of illegally growing Marijuana on private and national forest land in Northern California, US District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller has taken on the issue of the risks and benefits of the drug more widely, in a series of pre-trial hearings that has garnered national interest.
Oregon and Alaska voters approve legalize Recreational Marijuana laws.
Since the Nixon administration, the US government has placed Marijuana in the same classification as Heroin and LSD. This remains the case despite 23 US States and the District of Columbia ruling it legal for medical use, and Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska allowing adult recreational use.
Last Wednesday, Jusge Mueller said she would rule within 30 days on a defense argument that the federal government has improperly categorized the drug, meaning that the criminal charges against the 9 men before her should be thrown out.
Her ruling will only directly affect the case at hand, but if she sides with the defence there will likely be an appeal.
That would throw the case up to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers the 9 westernmost US states. It could also prompt lawsuits in other drug cases.
The men appearing before US District Judge Mueller were charged in Y 2011 with growing Marijuana near the City of Redding, CA.
If convicted, they face possible life imprisonment and a $10-M fine, plus forfeiture of property.
Defense lawyers argued that classifying Marijuana as an S-1 drug is unlawful, given that the government’s own definition of that category is that such drugs have no medical use and are among the most dangerous.
“It’s impossible to say that there is no accepted medical use,” said 1 of the defense attorneys in the case, Zenia Gilg, who has argued that her client was growing Marijuana for medical use.
Assistant US attorney Gregory Broderick said it was up to Congress to change the law, not the court. He said too few doctors believed that Marijuana had medical uses for the definition of the drug to change under the law.
“We’re not saying that this is the most dangerous drug in the world,” he said. “All we’re saying is that the evidence is such that reasonable people could disagree.”
Before resigning last year, US attorney general Eric Holder announced that he believed the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug should be reviewed.
ArcView Group, a cannabis industry investment and research firm based in Oakland, CA, issued a report earlier this year claiming that the legal Marijuana business is America’s fastest growing industry.
Sales of legal Marijuana in the US grew by 74% last year, to $2.7-B.
The defendants in the California case are accused of illegally growing Marijuana on federal land.
Judge Mueller has heard a wide-ranging discussion on the merits and demerits of Marijuana use, lawyers for each side bringing in experts and citing research.
Dr Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University who testified for the defense said that the paradox between the federal classification of Marijuana, and its actual legal use was “ridiculous”.
He pointed out that liquid THC, the active ingredient in the Marijuana plant, was regulated for medical use by prescription across the country as a Schedule 3 drug commonly used to treat nausea during chemotherapy for cancer patients and appetite loss and wasting in Aids sufferers.
“There is hypocrisy in the system on this,” he said. “The abuse potential of cannabis is lower than cocaine, amphetamines or morphine, but those are all Schedule 2 drugs. It makes no sense.”
Dr. Hart said the fact that it was even remarkable a judge had agreed to hear the arguments was frustrating, as the debate should already have been had at the federal level.
The prosecution presented Dr Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard University, who told the court of her concerns about the dangers of Marijuana.
The defense has referred to research findings from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, published last year, which concluded that deaths from prescription painkillers had been found to be 25% lower in states where Marijuana was legal for medical use.
One of the lead researchers in the study, Dr Colleen Barry, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, said the federal classification of Marijuana should be reconsidered.
“Marijuana is increasingly going to be considered in states around the country in the context of legalisation, so I think that we need to change the way we think about scheduling it as a drug,” she said.
She said Medical Marijuana laws had been passed to give people with very painful medical conditions, including cancer and multiple sclerosis, access to pain management alternatives to addictive prescription painkillers such as Percocet and Oxycontin.
“Marijuana is believed to have some painkilling properties,” she said.
Marijuana was not associated with overdose deaths, while painkiller deaths were “a major problem in this country”, Dr. Barry said.
However, she said, the risks associated with Marijuana dependency and the effect of the drug on adolescent brains in particular, as well as children being poisoned by eating edible Marijuana products, should all be taken into account.
Tight federal restrictions prevent detailed scientific research into the properties and effects of Marijuana that experts want to see.
Judge Mueller held a 5-day hearing on the topic of Marijuana classification last year. She listened to final arguments last Wednesday.
She has said little to suggest which way she will rule, but at 1 hearing the judge pointed out that there are “contested issues of fact” regarding whether including Marijuana in Schedule 1 “passes constitutional muster”.
The federal government has taken a hands-off attitude to enforcing federal drug laws at the instruction of the Obama administration in states that allow Marijuana for medical use.