Why A Federal Judge Dismissed A Lawsuit That Could Have Legalized Marijuana Nationwide

Photo Credit: David Zalubowski

A federal judge on Monday tossed out a lawsuit that sought to legalize cannabis under federal law, handing another setback to a movement aimed at effectively making the drug legal everywhere in the United States

The plaintiffs in the case included former NFL player Marvin Washington, along with a 12-year-old girl who uses medical marijuana to treat her chronic epilepsy and others who used the drug for medical reasons. Their lawsuit, which named Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a defendant, argued that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is unconstitutional with regard to its classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, the federal government’s most dangerous classification that is also reserved for drugs such as heroin and LSD. The lawsuit called that classification “irrational” based on the argument that marijuana serves a real medical purpose for countless patients across the country.

Filed in July, the lawsuit also claimed that federal marijuana policies in the U.S. are discriminatory against minorities.

However, Federal Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein dismissed the lawsuit on Monday afternoon, with Hellerstein noting in his decision that the basis of the ruling was “not on the merits of plaintiffs’ claim[s],” including the primary argument that marijuana has legitimate medical benefits and should therefore be declassified as a Schedule 1 substance. Instead, the judge decided that the plaintiffs should have to first petition the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—which, along with the FDA, oversees the classification and scheduling of illegal drugs—to get marijuana removed from the list of dangerous substances.

Of course, convincing the DEA to declassify marijuana is easier than it sounds. Multiple petitions to do just that have failed in recent years, including in 2016. That’s despite the fact that polls show a majority of Americans now believe the drug should be legal, and 29 states have already legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational use. While the DEA has said that it remains unconvinced of cannabis’ medical applications, the federal agency did narrowly expand legal research in the potential medical uses of marijuana, though proponents of legalization argue that declassification would allow for a much greater expansion in legal research.

Meanwhile, this most recent lawsuit represented an attempt by legalization proponents to circumvent the DEA in the search of an alternate path toward easing federal laws banning marijuana. The lawsuit also came at a time when the Justice Department under Sessions—who has made no secret of his opposition to legalizing marijuana—has reversed Obama era policies that took a “hands off” approach to implementing federal marijuana laws in states that have voted to legalize the drug. With Sessions and the Trump administration hinting that they could target marijuana businesses even in states where the drug is legal, the country’s rapidly growing legal cannabis industry could be at a crossroads.

Michael Hiller, the attorney serving as lead counsel to the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, said in a statement on Monday evening that his clients plan to appeal the court’s ruling, vowing that “this case will continue to move forward.”

“Resigning the plaintiffs to the petitioning administrative process is tantamount to a death sentence for those patients who need cannabis to live,” Hiller said. “The time has come for the courts to abandon decades-old precedent, notched with obsolete legal technicalities, and catch up with modern science and contemporary principles of constitutional law.”