Federal Appeals Court Won’t Change Marijuana’s ‘Dangerous Drug’ Classification

In the debate over the legal status of marijuana, one of the major obstacles to more lenient federal treatment is the Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical use. A federal appeals panel declined Tuesday to change that classification, finding that the DEA’s decision not to reschedule marijuana was not so improper that it warranted court invalidation:

On the merits, the question before the court is not whether marijuana could have some medical benefits. Rather, the limited question that we address is whether the DEA’s decision declining to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under the CSA was arbitrary and capricious. […]

Petitioners … are left with the difficult task of showing that the DEA has misapplied its own regulations. […]

[W]e are obliged to defer to the agency’s interpretation of “adequate and well-controlled studies.” Judged against the DEA’s standard, we find nothing in the record that could move us to conclude that the agency failed to prove by substantial evidence that such studies confirming marijuana’s medical efficacy do not exist.

Since the Controlled Substances Act was first passed in 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive of the five schedules. The initial House of Representatives report recommended that Congress classify marijuana as Schedule I at least temporarily “until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue,” reasoning that uncertainty remained about the effects of the drug. But multiple requests that the DEA reconsider its decision have failed, on the grounds that there is still insufficient research to make a determination.

Plaintiffs in this case had cited more than 200 peer-reviewed studies, and argued that larger-scale studies are precluded precisely because the government doesn’t support research on Schedule I drugs. The Schedule I designation also means no prescriptions can be written for the drug, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee cited the designation as the reason for blocking that state’s medical marijuana law. Both Chafee and Washington Gov. Christie Gregoire have called for the drug to be rescheduled.

In a deferential and unsurprising ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said it was bound by the DEA’s determination about what types of studies constitute “adequate and well-controlled.” But as the court explains, this decision represents courts’ extreme hesitance to disturb the determinations that agencies make, rather than any assessment of the medical benefits of the drug.

Nonetheless, it signifies the intractable battle to remove one of the major hurdles in reforming federal marijuana law. The classification of marijuana as a drug with no medical value appears increasingly at odds with the opinions of many doctors who attest to the medical benefits of the drug, and of patients, who take advantage of dispensaries in the 18 states where they are now legal.

A number of highly addictive and potent drugs, such as cocaine, opium poppy, morphine and codeine, are listed as Schedule II, designated for those drugs that have a high potential for abuse and dependence, but which have “a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.” And the synthetic version of THC, known as dronabinol, is listed as Schedule III, even though THC is the ingredient in cannabis that causes psychoactive effects.