Photo by Flickr user Brett Levin
Marijuana has come a long way since the paranoia of Reefer Madness. States that have legalized the drug are quickly getting rich on tax revenue from it, it's shown promise in treating all sorts of ailments, and there's some evidence that it might reduce addiction and overdoses caused by other drugs. The drug is sold in hipstery farmer's markets, rabbis are finding ways to adopt weed into a kosher lifestyle, and even Martha Stewart admits she rolls joints.
Still, marijuana's position as a Schedule 1 drug means that states' pot programs and research clash against federal law. Today, there was a case before a federal judge to potentially reschedule the drug, but the judge ruled to keep marijuana on the Schedule 1 list.
The ruling came from Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Federal District Court in Sacramento, California. The Associated Press reported that Judge Mueller gave a 15-minute court hearing, where she said that "this is not the court and this is not the time" to recategorize the drug. A written ruling is expected by the end of the week.
Paul Armentano, the Deputy Director of NORML and the lead investigator in the case's defense, said he was "disappointed" with today's ruling, but added that "we always felt this had to ultimately be decided by the Ninth Circuit and we have an unprecedented record for the court to consider." In other words, the fight isn't over yet.
Schedule 1 drugs—heroin, LSD, ecstasy, peyote, and marijuana—are classified as having a "high potential for abuse" and having "no currently accepted medical use." Marijuana's presence on this list has been debated for decades, especially with the growing body of research demonstrating marijuana's medical benefits. Upholding the classification as a Schedule 1 drug means that federal authorities can still raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states where it's considered legal, and comprehensive research studies about marijuana's effects are hindered by the extra steps required for researching Schedule 1.
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Dan Riffle, Director of Federal Policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said that we won't know exactly why Judge Mueller ruled the way she did until the written ruling comes out, but "as an attorney, I can tell you that courts are generally very deferential to administrative agencies when reviewing administrative rulings like the DEA's continued classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. That's why courts have rejected every effort to reschedule marijuana in the courts thus far, and likely the basis for today's ruling."
Marijuana has been listed among other Schedule 1 drugs since 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act was initiated. In 1972, NORML petitioned to move the drug from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2—a challenge that wasn't heard in court until 1986, and was ultimately denied. In 2002, the Coalition for Researching Cannabis filed a petition, this time suggesting that marijuana should be classified as either Schedule 3, 4, or 5, pending scientific research. That petition was also denied.
The fact that marijuana is still considered to have the same abuse-potential and lack of medical benefits as drugs like heroin is "ludicrous," in the words of Riffle, who points to the scientific research we have on the drug. "Marijuana poses a dramatically lower risk of abuse than other drugs in Schedule 1 as well as those in lower schedules, and nearly half of all Americans now live in states with effective medical marijuana laws." Add to that the fact that most Americans support marijuana legalization and recognize that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol—a substance that isn't scheduled at all—and you've got a fairly convincing case that marijuana should be removed from the list of scheduled drugs altogether, rather than recategorized into a lower schedule.
In the meantime, Riffle and many others said that the impetus is on lawmakers to change public policy to recognize the medicinal merits of marijuana.
"While we are very disappointed with the decision, this just really underscores the need for Congress to take action and to reschedule cannabis on a federal level," said Don Duncan, the California Director for Americans for Safe Access, an organization that advocates legal medical marijuana therapeutics and research. One solution, he said, would be for Congress to adopt the CARERS Act, a bill which is currently before the Senate and would allow access to and research on medical marijuana. "So there is a path forward, despite the decision from the judge today."
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