By Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director
At issue is whether a rational basis exists for the government's contention that cannabis is properly designated as a schedule I substance --- defined as possessing a "high potential for abuse," "no currently accepted medical use in treatment," and "a lack of accepted safety ... under medical supervision." A federal court has not heard evidence on the matter since the early 1970s.
Lawyers for the federal government argue that it is rational for the government to maintain the plant's prohibitive status as long as there remains any dispute among experts in regard to its safety and efficacy. Defense counsel --- attorneys Zenia Gilg and Heather Burke of the NORML Legal Committee --- contend that the federal law prohibiting Justice Department officials from interfering with the facilitation of the regulated distribution of cannabis in over 20 US states can not be reconciled with the government's continued insistence that the plant is deserving of its Schedule I status under federal law.
In October, defense counsel and experts presented evidence over a five-day period arguing that the scientific literature is not supportive of the plant's present categorization. "Numerous clinical trials have been conducted using whole plant marijuana and have concluded the evidence strongly suggests therapeutic value," defense counsel affirmed in a written brief filed with the court last month. "Physicians in 23 states and the District of Columbia have been recommending whole plant cannabis for treatment of a myriad of medical conditions. The United States, through SAMHSA (Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of HHS), holds a patent [on the therapeutic utility of the plant.]"
"... It is unimaginable to believe that if heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, or even over-the-counter medications were being distributed in 23 states and the District of Columbia, Congress and the President would abdicate all regulatory authority to those jurisdictions, and then cut off all funds ... to intervene in related distribution activities. ... Even the most vivid imagination would be hard pressed to reconcile such action with a 'rational belief' that marijuana is one of the most dangerous drugs in the nation."
In a brief filed with the court by the federal government, it contends: "Congress' decision to treat marijuana as a controlled substance was and remains well within the broad range of permissible legislative choices. Defendants appear to argue that Congress was wrong or incorrectly weighed the evidence. Although they failed to prove even that much, it would be insufficient. Rational basis review does not permit the Court's to 'second guess' Congress' conclusions, but only to enjoin decisions that are totally irrational or without an 'imaginable' basis."
They add: "Congress is not required to be 'right,' nor does it matter if the basis on which Congress made its decision turns out to be 'wrong.' All that is required is that Congress could rationally have believed that its action --- banning the production and distribution of marijuana --- would advance its indisputably legitimate interests in promoting public health and welfare. Because qualified experts disagree, it is not for the Courts to decide the issue and the statute must be upheld."
The Judge is anticipated to rule on defense's motion within 30 days.
Legal briefs in the case, United States v. Pickard, et. al., No. 2:11-CR-0449-KJM, are available online here.