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Federal Court Denies Lawsuit Claiming Marijuana's Medical Benefits

The U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the DEA's classification of marijuana as a medically invalid Schedule I drug.



Preserving the main legal barrier to medical marijuana, a federal appeals court on Jan. 22 rejected a lawsuit intended to force the Drug Enforcement Administration to move marijuana out of Schedule I, the federal law that classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug with no valid medical use.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 that the medical-marijuana advocates who filed the suit—Americans for Safe Access, a California-based patient-advocacy group; the Coalition to Reschedule Cannabis, Patients Out of Time, and four individual medical users, including Air Force veteran Michael Krawitz—had not proved that the DEA’s decision to keep marijuana in Schedule I was “arbitrary and capricious.” The court held that marijuana had failed to meet the five standards the DEA sets for drugs to qualify as having a valid medical use.

The court “seemed to defer to the DEA,” by focusing on whether adequate scientific studies had been done to show marijuana’s medical efficacy, says ASA spokesperson Kris Hermes. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Joe Elford of San Francisco, says the court didn't close off the possibility that future studies will show its efficacy more conclusively. They plan to appeal the decision, first to the full 13 judges of the D.C. Circuit, and then to the Supreme Court if they lose.

The dissenting judge said the court should not consider the case because none of the plaintiffs had legal standing to file a suit. The majority held that Krawitz did, because he had been forced to pay for an outside doctor after the Veterans Health Administration refused to prescribe him painkillers unless he signed a contract agreeing not to use marijuana. Krawitz, who has had surgery 13 times since he was seriously injured in a car accident in 1984, says the best relief for his chronic pain is a combination of cannabis and opioid painkillers.

“What would be ‘arbitrary and capricious,’ if this isn’t?” he asks rhetorically. “You talk to the DEA about medical marijuana, and they go ‘la-la-la’ with their fingers in their ears.”

The DEA referred discussion of the ruling to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to an e-mailed list of questions by press time.

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which placed marijuana in Schedule I, the DEA has the power to decide which drugs belong in which schedules. For more than 40 years—since 1972, when the federal Shafer Commission recommended decriminalization—it has resisted moving marijuana out of Schedule I, the category for drugs with “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and no “accepted level of safety for use under medical supervision.”

Heroin, LSD and PCP are also in Schedule I, and thus completely illegal for medical use. Cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine, and OxyContin are in Schedule II, drugs that are legal for medical use but have enough abuse potential to warrant maximum restrictions. Marinol, synthetic THC, is in Schedule III—moved from Schedule II in 1999, after several states voted to legalize medical marijuana.

To be recognized as having a valid medical use, drugs have to meet the DEA’s “five-prong test,” which was developed in a 1991 court ruling on the first challenger to marijuana’s Schedule I status. They have to have “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.”

In denying this for marijuana, the D.C. Circuit cited findings submitted to the DEA by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The department said that marijuana did not have a “known and reproducible” chemistry, because it contains more than 480 known compounds, including 66 cannabinoids, which are not known to exist in any other plant, and there has never been “a complete scientific analysis” of its components. It said there were no studies of sufficient quality to assess “the efficacy and full safety profile of marijuana for any medical condition”; a “material conflict of opinion among experts” about its safety and efficacy, and that the raw research data typically were not available in a format that would allow “adequate scientific scrutiny of whether the data demonstrate safety or efficacy.”