Judge Rejects Constitutional Claim for Medical Marijuana

(AP file photo/Andrew Selsky)

MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge Tuesday dismissed a constitutional challenge to classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the highest level of classification under the Controlled Substances Act.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein granted the U.S. attorney general’s motion to dismiss Tuesday, after hearing oral arguments on Valentine’s Day.

Marvin Washington and the Cannabis Cultural Association, et al., claimed that classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug violates due process because it lacks a rational basis. Schedule I drugs, which include heroin and LSD, have no accepted medical use and cannot legally be prescribed.

The ruling by Judge Hellerstein, 85, came as no surprise. At the Feb. 14 hearing at which he reserved his decision, he commented: “I think the right thing to do is defer to the agency.”

In his 20-page ruling, Hellerstein wrote: “Although plaintiffs couch their claim in constitutional language, they seek the same relief as would be available in an administrative forum — a change in marijuana’s scheduling classification — based on the same factors that guide the DEA’s reclassification determination.”

He found that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.

“I emphasize that this decision is not on the merits of plaintiffs’ claim,” Hellerstein wrote, sympathizing with two children who used marijuana successfully, one to treat intractable epilepsy, and one the severe neurological disorder called Leigh’s syndrome.

However, “Even if marijuana has medical uses, I cannot say that Congress acted irrationally in placing marijuana in Schedule 1.” He cited DEA texts on marijuana’s “various psychoactive effects,” including its potential to cause a “decrease in IQ and general neuropsychological performance.”

“There can be no complaint of constitutional error when such a process is designed to provide a safety valve of this kind,” Hellerstein added, citing provisions of the Controlled Substances Act that allow for periodic review of control and classification in “a field in which factual claims are conflicted and scientific knowledge is still growing.”

Plaintiffs’ lead attorney Michael Hiller said they would appeal.

“Resigning the plaintiffs to the petitioning administrative process is tantamount to a death sentence for those patients who need cannabis to live,” said Hiller.

Indeed, Hellerstein wrote that “Plaintiffs’ amended complaint, which I must accept as true for the purpose of this motion, claims that the use of medical marijuana has, quite literally, saved their lives.”

After describing the two children’s successful medical treatment with marijuana, Hellerstein continued: “I highlight plaintiffs’ experience to emphasize that this decision should not be understood as a factual finding that marijuana lacks any medical use in the United States, for the authority to make that determination is vested in the administrative process. In light of the decision of the Second Circuit, see United States v. Kiffer, 477 F.2d at 355-57, and the several decisions of the D.C. Circuit, see, e.g., Am. for Safe Access, 706 F.3d at 449, I am required to dismiss plaintiffs’ rational basis claim.”

Nelson Guerrero and Jake Plowden, co-founders of the New York-based 501(c)3 nonprofit Cannabis Cultural Association, commented: “The court looked to hamstring us with the administrative process through the DEA to change the classification of cannabis on the Controlled Substances Act.”

But they vowed to soldier on: “This is not the end of our journey. We understood that regardless of the decision, there is still work that needs to be done. We shall use this moment to expand our goals and use this momentum to further empower our communities.

“This process takes an average of nine years to complete and is overseen by the DEA. Lives cannot wait a decade for an ultimately biased conclusion. We look forward to continuing moving this case forward through the courts.”

Hellerstein rejected the claim that the Controlled Substance Acts violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was passed with racial animus. He found the nonprofit lacked standing to make the claim and “failed to demonstrate that a favorable decision is likely to redress” their alleged injuries.

The racial animus claim harks back to the Nixon administration. The judge found that the plaintiffs here failed to demonstrate that the “relevant decisionmaker – Congress” passed the Controlled Substances Act and placed marijuana in Schedule 1 to discriminate against African-Americans.

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