U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein dismissed a lawsuit challenging the federal prohibition of cannabis on Monday. Hellerstein gave marijuana advocates cause for optimism during a February 14 hearing on the federal government’s motion to dismiss the case by recognizing the medical potential of marijuana – a rare statement from a federal judge.
But he ultimately granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. In his opinion, Hellerstein emphasized that his decision has nothing to do with the “merits of plaintiffs’ claim.” Rather, he believes that the plaintiffs ought to pursue “administrative remedies” first, and that marijuana’s medical value is something for the Attorney General to consider – not a federal court.
“We have the utmost respect for the judge, but frankly, we think he got it wrong,” said Lauren Rudick, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “The petitioning process is a futile remedy [and] the decision-maker is biased.”
Indeed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has frequently pushed back on the liberalization of marijuana laws, even going so far to say that cannabis helped cause the opioid crisis (while scientific evidence suggests quite the opposite).
Meanwhile, those who have petitioned the government through the administrative process have faced on average a nine-year wait. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that waiting nearly a decade is unreasonable for those who use cannabis as a life-saving medicine.
The plaintiffs in the case are former New York Jet-turned cannabis entrepreneur Marvin Washington, pediatric medical marijuana patients Alexis Bortell and Jagger Cotte, Army veteran and medical marijuana patient Jose Belen, and the Cannabis Cultural Association, a non-profit that advocates for underrepresented communities in the cannabis industry.
“After years of searching for viable treatment options, Alexis began using medical marijuana. Since then, she has gone nearly three years without a single seizure,” wrote Hellerstein in his opinion. “I highlight plaintiffs’ experience to emphasize that this decision should not be understood as a factual finding that marijuana lacks any medical use in the United States.”
“We believe the judge has the ability to review the agency’s prior determinations that no longer hold water,” said co-counsel David Holland. Considering that most U.S. states have comprehensive medical marijuana programs, the federal government’s classification of marijuana certainly seems ill-informed.
“The whole constitutional setup of the Schedule I designation is in fact unconstitutional,” said Holland.
The case also challenges marijuana prohibition by arguing that the Controlled Substances Act was passed with racial animus. The complaint argues that marijuana’s Schedule I status was instituted by the Nixon administration to suppress the rights of African Americans and protestors of the Vietnam War: “Members of the Nixon Administration have confirmed that… [it] harbored considerable antipathy towards African Americans.”
But Hellerstein wrote that – even if true – the plaintiffs fail to demonstrate that Congress placed marijuana in Schedule I “in order to intentionally discriminate against African Americans.”
“That’s a tough argument to accept,” said Holland. “The president can be the driving force of legislation. It’s hard to accept that the animus of a president would not be indoctrinated and imbued into a Congressional legislative act.”
The plaintiffs and their attorneys have vowed to continue their fight.
“My fellow plaintiffs and I will continue to stand strong for the veterans and countless Americans whose lives depend on access to medical cannabis,” Army veteran Jose Belen said in a statement. “We are on the right side of history, and we will take this fight to the Supreme Court if necessary.”
“We always knew this case would be decided on appeal,” said Rudick. “We’re looking forward to the appeal and we’re optimistic that the appeals court will get it right.”
Meanwhile, those involved in the case are heartened by the outpouring of support for their cause.
“We can take great pride in the moral victory of having taken what was once a controversial subject and made it a mainstream conversation,” said Holland. “That very ill people whose lives have been changed by cannabis – that’s the conversation we should be having in America today.”