Marijuana Reclassification Rejected by DC Circuit Court

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Source: Jay Smoker, “‘Bona Fide’ Doctor/Patient Relationship Defended in Michigan Medical Cannabis Case,”, Sep. 18, 2012
In a 2-1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled against the petitioners of a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy organization, sued the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on July 8, 2011 after it denied an Oct. 9, 2002 petition by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC) to reschedule marijuana.

“[T]he question before the court is not whether marijuana could have some medical benefits,” said the court in its ruling on Jan. 22, 2013. “Rather, the limited question that we address is whether the DEA’s decision declining to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under the CSA (Controlled Substances Act) was arbitrary and capricious… The petition asks the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III, IV, or V drug, which, under the terms of the CSA, requires a currently accepted medical use… The DEA’s regulations… define ‘currently accepted medical use’ to require… ‘adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy’… We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist.”
The dissenting opinion from Judge Henderson argued that the petitioners lacked standing and that the case should have been dismissed altogether.

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the United States federal government has the authority to regulate the manufacture, importation, possession, use, and distribution of drugs through a scheduling, or classification system. Marijuana (along with LSD, heroin, and other substances) is listed under the most restrictive Schedule I, which is reserved for drugs that “have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” 

Cocaine and opium are listed in Schedule II, and Marinol (a synthetic form of the active ingredient THC in marijuana) has been classified in Schedule III.

“To deny that sufficient evidence is lacking on the medical efficacy of marijuana is to ignore a mountain of well-documented studies that conclude otherwise,” said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford in a written statement. “The Court has unfortunately agreed with the Obama Administration’s unreasonably raised bar on what qualifies as an ‘adequate and well-controlled’ study, thereby continuing their game of ‘Gotcha’… The Obama Administration’s legal efforts will keep marijuana out of reach for millions of qualified patients who would benefit from its use. It’s time for President Obama to change his harmful policy with regard to medical marijuana and treat this as a public health issue, something entirely within the capability and authority of the executive office.”

Americans for Safe Access vs. Drug Enforcement Administration is the first federal court case in 20 years to review whether adequate scientific evidence exists to reclassify marijuana. ASA is expected to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the US government has “acted arbitrarily and capriciously by using continually changing standards of ‘medical efficacy’ in order to maintain marijuana as a Schedule I substance.”

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana, and six states have pending legislation. The possession and sale of marijuana remain illegal under federal law.


Americans for Safe Access, “DC Circuit Denies Medical Marijuana Reclassification Challenge, Advocates Vow to Appeal,”, Jan. 22, 2013

Joe Elford, “DC Circuit Orders Supplemental Briefing in Landmark Federal Medical Marijuana Case,”, Oct. 17, 2012

Chris Roberts, “Feds Play Circular Game of ‘Gotcha’ with Marijuana Prohibition,”, Oct. 17, 2012

Phillip Smith, “Marijuana Scheduling Case Heard by DC Appeals Court,”, Oct. 17, 2012

Jacob Sullum, “Federal Appeals Court Hears Challenge to Marijuana’s Legal Status,”, Oct. 16, 2012

United States Court of Appeals, “Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration,”, Jan. 22, 2013