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Federal Law Challenged Over Marijuana’s Medicinal Value
A federal court judge has agreed to examine federal marijuana law for the first time in decades. The issue focuses on removing marijuana from classification alongside powerfully addictive drugs of no medicinal value, such as heroin and LSD. But what does the case potentially mean in practical terms for the general public?
Even if the federal judge rules in favor of the alleged pot-growing defendants, some drug law specialists see bigger significance politically. A finding for the defense would be appealed, create other legal quagmires and not be binding on a defendant in other locations within the state. U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller in Sacramento will make a ruling sometime later this year.
Central to the case is the Substance Abuse Act of 1970. It places various drugs in categories and classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, defined as having no medicinal value, even under a doctor’s care, and of risk for abuse.
Defendants, federally indicted on conspiracy charges connected with their alleged marijuana growing, have argued that pot is medically safer than unregulated substances such as alcohol. It challenged the constitutionality of the prosecution in a defense motion last year that the judge agreed to hear. That led to days of hearings with witnesses for both sides and volumes of evidence.
Marijuana’s Medicinal Value Challenged
The defense argues that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection, but the federal government enforces marijuana law unequally — it stays out of states where recreational or medicinal pot use has been legalized, yet pursues indictments in others. It also asserted that marijuana has been found safer than alcohol and even caffeine.
The prosecution argued that the federal government needs only to establish that marijuana’s classification and the law were based on legitimate health threats. It presented evidence that indicates cognitive damage, psychotic behavior and memory loss may occur in teens using marijuana.
“In 2013 alone, more than 29,000 people checked themselves in for marijuana substance abuse treatment just in California, and more than half of them were teenagers,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Gregory T. Broderick wrote in a recent news brief. “Given the state of the science, it is clear that treating marijuana as a controlled substance is rationally related to legitimate public health objectives.”
Defense attorney Zenia X. Gling of San Francisco counters that even the prosecution witnesses acknowledged that marijuana can’t kill because cannabis effects the central nervous system but not the brain stem, where breathing and heart rate functions are controlled, yet alcohol and caffeine — neither included in the Substance Abuse Act — can be lethal in excess because they do impact the brain stem.
Gling, a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, pointed to an amendment to the new U.S. appropriations bill, passed in December to fund 2015 government operations, as a sign Congress is adapting to growing public acceptance of pot. The amended spending bill “un-funds the Department of Justice, the DEA, the U.S. Attorney’s office so that they can’t spend any money on investigations or prosecutions of marijuana cases because they’d impinge on the states’ enforcement of their own medical marijuana laws,” Gling said. “Odd if there’s no such thing as medical value in marijuana.”
Impacts From the Marijuana Law Challenge
The fight to throw out the Substance Abuse Act statute classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug was called “an uphill battle,” by attorney Alex Kreit, associate professor and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. An advisor to the San Diego City Council on municipal marijuana and author of a reference book for attorneys called Drug Abuse and the Law, Kreit said that it’s always difficult to make a case under equal protection of the law.
Unless gender or race discrimination in the enforcement of the law could be proved, Kreit said, the courts will defer to what the legislative judgment has been. “The fact that the judge set aside four days for hearings … means the challenge might succeed. I don’t think that much of the court’s time would be spent if it was viewed as an open-and-shut issue,” he said.
Even if the Sacramento federal judge finds against the prosecution, and even if the 9th District Court of Appeal upholds her decision, its application would have limits. Even if marijuana’s classification changed, sentencing of federal drug crimes isn’t impacted because guidelines for minimum sentences are done separately. The greater victory in the case, some pot-law observers say, might be a political one.
Resolving the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws is essential and won’t happen with any one case. But a victory for the defendants would be more evidence with which to pressure Congress, Kreit said. “Ultimately I can’t see any other end game but Congress changing marijuana law.”
Gling notes another possible outcome of the case, which was filed against 12 defendants: There might be a settlement before trial.
By Nancy Wride
Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride