A California Department of Fish and Game warden cuts down pot plants in the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — Marijuana will continue to be considered a highly dangerous drug under federal law with no accepted medical uses, after a U.S. appeals court Tuesday refused to order a change in the government's 40-year-old drug classification schedule.
The decision keeps in place an odd legal split over marijuana, a drug deemed to be as dangerous as heroin and worse than methamphetamine by federal authorities, but one that has been legalized for medical use by voters or legislators in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
A marijuana advocacy group went to court, arguing that federal officials had a duty to reexamine the medical evidence and reclassify marijuana as a drug that has clear benefits for those who are suffering and in pain. Joe Elford, counsel for Americans for Safe Access, said federal drug officials had a bias against marijuana that caused them to ignore its benefits and to exaggerate its dangers.
But three judges said they had a duty to defer to the judgment of federal health experts who had concluded they needed more evidence before reclassifying marijuana.
"To establish accepted medical use, the effectiveness of a drug must be established in well-controlled, well-designed, well-conducted and well-documented scientific studies [with] a large number of patients. To date, such studies have not been performed," the Drug Enforcement Administration said in defense of its decision. The passage was quoted in Tuesday's opinion.
Judge Harry Edwards, writing for the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said the judges did not dispute that "marijuana could have some medical benefits." Instead, he said, they were not willing to overrule the DEA because they had not seen large "well-controlled studies" that proved the medical value of marijuana.
"We're disappointed, but not surprised," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access. She said more than 1 million patients used marijuana as medicine across the nation.
She said the group would appeal to the Supreme Court. "We are also turning our attention to Congress. It is time we had a conversation about marijuana at the federal level," she said.
In December, President Obama and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said they were prepared to reconsider federal law that makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a crime. They were reacting to voters in Colorado and Washington who opted to permit recreational users to have an ounce of marijuana at home.
"So, what we're going to need to have is a conversation about how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that it's legal," Obama told ABC News.
Leahy said he would consider legislative proposals that could relax federal enforcement against small amounts of marijuana.