Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Could a high-profile lawsuit help end federal marijuana prohibition?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times article headlined "Lawsuit Takes Aim at Trump Administration Marijuana Policy." As detailed below, this lawsuit was covered on this blog when first filed, and this press article is prompted by an upcoming hearing.  Here is part of the report (followed by a bit of commentary at the end):

On Wednesday, yet another courtroom battle promises to pull the White House into the legal spotlight as crucial arguments are heard in New York in a sweeping lawsuit that is challenging the administration’s marijuana policy by seeking to legalize pot under federal law.

When the suit was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan in July, it appeared to be an intriguing, if limited, effort to help its five named plaintiffs — among them, a former professional football player with a business selling pot-based pain relievers and a 12-year-old girl who treats her chronic epilepsy with medical marijuana.  But the case was thrust into national relevance last month when Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an order encouraging prosecutors to aggressively enforce the federal marijuana law, endangering the viability of the multibillion-dollar weed industry in states where it is legal.

In its 98-page complaint, the suit presents its case for legalization not only through a host of constitutional arguments, but also by way of a world-historical tour of marijuana use — from its first purported role 10,000 years ago in the production of Taiwanese pottery to the smoking habits of President Barack Obama in his younger days. It points out that the ancient Egyptians used the drug to treat eye sores and hemorrhoids, and Thomas Jefferson puffed it for his migraines. James Madison credited “sweet hemp” for giving him “insight to create a new and democratic nation,” the suit notes.

The suit also includes archival material quoting John Ehrlichman, an adviser to President Richard Nixon, saying that the early efforts to criminalize pot were a way to disrupt the hippies and the black community after the 1960s. The contention is bolstered by an affidavit from Roger J. Stone, Jr., a pro-pot Nixon-era operative and adviser to Mr. Trump....

The current legal action is a somewhat rare attempt to use civil claims to legalize weed and has offered some novel arguments as to why its classification has violated the constitutional rights of those who filed the suit.

The former football player, Marvin Washington, for instance, is contending that the Controlled Substances Act has impeded his ability to transact business in states where pot is legal in contravention of the Constitution’s commerce clause.  The girl with epilepsy, Alexis Bortell, has argued that the law illegally restricts her right to travel with her medicine in states where pot is not allowed or to places controlled by the federal government — including on airplanes. A third plaintiff, the Cannabis Cultural Association, a nonprofit group created to assist minorities in the marijuana industry, has alleged the law has been used for years to discriminate against them.

“It’s the first time a young child who needs lifesaving medicine has stood up to the government to be able to use it,” said Joseph A. Bondy, one of the lawyers who brought the suit. “It’s the first time that a group of young millennials of color has stood up to the government and said the marijuana law is wrong and has destroyed their communities.”

The suit has made another claim based on what amounts to government hypocrisy: It asks why the government has classified pot as a pernicious substance, when in 2003 the Department of Health and Human Services obtained a patent on compounds in the drug to protect against brain damage and then in 2015 the surgeon general under President Obama declared in public that pot has medical benefits.

Against these claims, lawyers for the government have argued that Congress decided nearly 50 years ago that pot should be a Schedule 1 drug, and if the plaintiffs don’t agree, they should try to change the law.  Their suit, the lawyers wrote in one of their filings, “is the latest in a long list of cases asserting constitutional challenges to marijuana regulation under the C.S.A. Those challenges have been uniformly rejected by the federal courts.”

No matter how the lawsuit ends, the judge who is considering the case, Alvin K. Hellerstein, is clearly taking it seriously.  At a hearing in September, Judge Hellerstein said he would give the matter his “prioritized attention,” setting it ahead of all of his other cases.

The hearing on Wednesday, scheduled to entertain arguments to dismiss the case, is likely to be marked by a whiff of drama as marijuana activists from across the country are expected to descend on the courtroom.  Mr. Bondy said he is also trying to arrange a live-stream of the proceeding so that young Alexis, unable to travel to New York, can watch it from her home in Colorado.

I am pleased to see the New York Times giving significant attention to this litigation, but I find it troublesome how the headline of the article wrongly suggests that the lawsuit goes after the "Trump Administration Marijuana Policy" when in fact the suit is assailing Congress's failure to move marijuana off Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.  (Notably, the lawsuit discussed here was filed when the Trump Administration policies on marijuana were unchanged from Obama Administration policies.)

Similarly, this article is off base when asserting that AG Jeff Sessions "issued an order encouraging prosecutors to aggressively enforce the federal marijuana law."  The AG did issue an order rescinding the Cole Memo last month, but that merely took away novel limits on federal prosecutors and did not come with any orders for "aggressive" enforcement of federal prohibition.  (If AG Sessions had ordered federal prosecutors to aggressively enforce federal marijuana law, there would be hundred of indictments being filed in dozens of state with operational recreational and medical marijuana marketplaces.)

The full complaint as originally filed in Washington, et.al v. Sessions, et.al, be found here.

Prior related posts:

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2018/02/could-a-high-profile-lawsuit-help-end-federal-marijuana-prohibition.html

Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink

Comments

The mis-information and deceptive bias illustrated in the supposedly "left-leaning" NYT article illustrates why bi-partisan support to end Prohibition continues to its upward momentum. Both major parties should recognize that marijuana legalization is now and will be a cross-generational cross-political winner in 2020. Yeah, I said it.

Posted by: @15MinuteLaw | Feb 15, 2018 6:49:45 PM

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