Proceedings in a lawsuit aimed at legalizing medical marijuana nationwide began this week. The case is aimed at downgrading marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I substance, putting it currently on par with heroine, ecstasy, and peyote.
The court case could be an important step for cannabis activists. If Congress remains paralyzed in the face of a federal marijuana crackdown, the only other path to nationwide medical marijuana legalization is having a judge declare that the prohibition is unconstitutional.
The suit, filed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Drug Enforcement Agency, challenges the prohibition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. As it stands, marijuana is considered one of six Schedule I drugs, which are defined by the DEA as, “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The case is being tried in Manhattan because one of the plaintiffs, the Cannabis Cultural Association Inc., is based in New York City.
Another of the five plaintiffs is 12 year-old Alexis Bortell, who suffers from epilepsy. Bortell contends that her positive experience using medical marijuana proves that marijuana is incorrectly classified. When taking a regimen of traditional pharmaceuticals to treat her illness, Bortell says she suffered a seizure every few days. Her story has made her a sympathetic face for the cause to allow for the use of marijuana as a treatment for medical disorders and illness.
Almost three years ago, Bortell began using medical marijuana by ingesting an oil derived from pot twice a day. Because medical marijuana is illegal on the federal level, her family was forced to move from their home in Texas to Colorado, where they could legally obtain the medicine on the state level. Bortell told CBS that she has been seizure-free ever since.
Bortell’s experience is being presented as evidence that marijuana has medical applications. Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is presiding over the case, acknowledged that it’s a persuasive position. Addressing the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Hellerstein said, “Your clients are living proof of the medical applications of marijuana.”
As of Thursday, Judge Hellerstein hadn’t given a ruling on the case. A spokesperson for the judge was unable to say when a decision would be released.
Despite his obvious sympathies, it seems unlikely that Hellerstein will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and strike down marijuana’s Schedule I classification. In part, this is a case about jurisdiction. During the hearing, Hellerstein suggested that the Drug Enforcement Agency should be responsible for setting their own policy without judicial interference. “When agencies are set up to do the very kind of thing that you want me to do, I think the right thing is to defer to the agency,” Hellerstein said.
And when agencies set bad policies, it’s typically up to Congress to change them through legislation. But Congress has been reticent to enact new federal policy on marijuana, choosing instead to let states handle the issue on their own. This has led to a legal quagmire, where medical marijuana is deemed legal in 30 states but prohibited at the same time by the federal government. Sessions’ renewed attacks on marijuana have made the incongruent relationship between federal and state policy even more tenuous.
You can read the full lawsuit here.