A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Schedule I classification status of cannabis.
Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York had granted the U.S. Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case, stating that the plaintiffs were not able to exhaust their administrative remedies.
The suit was filed on July 24, 2018, by Marvin Washington, Alexis Bartell, Dean Bartell, Sebastien Cotte, Jose Belen, Jagger Cottee, and the Cannabis Cultural Association. The individual plaintiffs are all medical cannabis patients, while the CCA is a non-profit group that aims to advance the marginalized groups’ business footprint in the cannabis industry.
The plaintiffs challenged the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The plaintiffs argued that the CSA is unconstitutional and violates due process as it lacks rational basis. Therefore, they are asking the court to remove cannabis from the list of controlled narcotics.
The plaintiffs were hoping that the reclassification of cannabis would pave the way for cannabis legalization across the country. Aside from the Department of Justice, they also named the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions as defendants.
Schedule I is the most restrictive drug classification level in the U.S. Cannabis’ classification as a Schedule I drug means that it is considered to have no accepted medical use, is considered to have a high potential for abuse, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. This classification places cannabis on equal standing with drugs like heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy.
The U.S. Congress has granted the attorney general the power to reclassify cannabis after deeming it a highly dangerous narcotic. The DEA can also reclassify as long as the attorney general has signed off on the reclassification petition based on scientific and medical data. The data should be provided by the Department of Health and Human Services and must be consistent with reclassification arguments.
In his 20-page decision, Hellerstein wrote that the case was dismissed as it focused on procedural issues and not on the merits of the case for the medical efficacy of the drug. He stressed that, as a point of law, plaintiffs should first present arguments through the administrative procedure that was set up to reconsider the scheduling of cannabis. He said that parties should exhaust the prescribed administrative remedies prior to seeking relief from federal courts. This is called the “exhaustion rule.”
Simply put, Hellerstein determined that the plaintiffs first need to petition the government before going to court.
In his ruling, however, Hellerstein acknowledged that cannabis does possess therapeutic properties. This is why he clarified that his decision should not be taken as a factual finding that the drug lacks any medical benefit.
Furthermore, Hellerstein rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that President Richard Nixon’s racial animus contributed to the Schedule I classification of cannabis. The suit had specifically alleged that the CSA violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause as it was passed with racially motivated reasons for keeping cannabis very illegal.
Plaintiffs to appeal?
Michael Hiller, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, pointed out that resigning them to the petitioning administrative process is equal to a death sentence for patients who need medical cannabis to live. He said that it is high time for courts to let go of a very old precedent tainted with obsolete legal technicalities and to just try to catch up with contemporary principles of constitutional law as well as with modern science.
While the members of the litigation team see Hellerstein’s dismissal of the case as a disappointing setback in their fight to reschedule cannabis, they say that the case is going to “continue to move forward.” Despite the outcome now, they say that they remain confident that the case’s final disposition will be in their favor.