Full Court PressBy David Jenison
After nearly two decades, marijuana is back before a federal bench. An appeals court in D.C. heard oral arguments last month in the case of Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration. Patient-advocacy group ASA seeks to reclassify the drug’s controlled-substances status, and their case comes with a compelling narrative.
Michael Krawitz, a 49-year-old Air Force veteran, suffered serious injuries in a 1984 car accident. He’s undergone 13 surgeries and still suffers chronic pain, and the most effective relief comes from adding cannabis to his drug regimen. When the Veterans Administration learned this, it demanded a drug test, and denied further medical treatment when Krawitz refused. As a plaintiff in the suit, this military veteran puts a respectable face to the growing argument for the drug’s medicinal use.
“We feel good about our chances in the DC Circuit because we have science on our side,” says ASA spokesperson Kris Hermes. “While it’s difficult to tell from oral arguments how the court will decide in a particular case, the order for clarification on the harm sustained by plaintiff Michael Krawitz that the court issued directly after the hearing is a good sign. If we can reasonably show that Krawitz sustained harm by being denied services as a result of federal policy on medical marijuana, we will satisfy ‘standing’ which will allow the court to rule on the merits—whether marijuana does in fact have medical value.”
Marijuana is classified as Schedule I, the most restrictive drug category, placing it alongside heroin, LSD and PCP as highly addictive drugs with no medical benefits. In contrast, cocaine and crystal meth claim enough medical value for Schedule II status, while opioid-based Vicodin is Schedule III. The ASA wants cannabis moved to a Schedule III status or higher (up to Schedule V), and several medical groups support them, including the American Medical Association (AMA). The government itself appears divided on the issue considering the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes on Health (NIH), recently added cannabis to its list of Complementary Alternative Medicines.
“By placing marijuana in any other schedule, the application process for conducting controlled studies on the medicinal benefits and obtaining research-grade marijuana with which to perform the studies would not be as problematic as they currently are,” explains Hermes. “Research on Schedule I substances must undergo a stringent approval process overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which prioritizes studies on the supposed negative effects of marijuana.”
In essence, a new schedule allows for more in-depth medical research, and doctors would be able to prescribe marijuana in the 17 states that allow for medical use without fear of federal reprisal. In 2010, a national ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 81 percent of the country supports legalizing medical use, yet the government stubbornly resists.
“Part of the resistance is to maintain and increase law enforcement budgets; part of it is the stated role of the so-called drug czar; and part of it is the moral righteousness that drives much of the federal policy on marijuana and obstructs the development of a sensible public health policy,” Hermes adds.
A three-judge panel heard the case, and the decision will be issued in the coming months. Regardless, the case could ultimately land in the Supreme Court.
We can thank Nixon for the Controlled Substances Act—the statute he pushed Congress to approve that pretty much paved the way for the War on Drugs. According to the act, a drug in the Schedule I category has a “high potential for abuse” and “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” No prescriptions can be written for Schedule I drugs. This is the government’s way of saying marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, Ecstasy and date-rape drug GHB.