A federal judge in California changed her mind at the last minute over whether marijuana should be de-classified from a federal list of ‘dangerous’ drugs. (Nepal Gateway/Flickr photo)
The federal government will continue to consider marijuana a “dangerous drug” akin to LSD and heroin after a judge rejected a motion that some saw as a greater push toward the drug’s broad legalization.
At the federal courthouse in Sacramento, Calif. on Wednesday, Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she initially prepared to rule in favor of a group of defendants seeking to de-classify marijuana as a dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act, but changed her mind because she felt judges were not intended to be tasked with overturning policy decisions enacted by lawmakers.
Mueller acknowledged that the landscape involving medicinal and recreational marijuana had changed, but said “this is not the court and not the time” to take a stance on the issue.
The case had been closely watched by pro-marijuana advocates as it was the first time a federal judge agreed to hold a hearing examining the facts of the federal government’s classification of marijuana, the Huffington Post noted. Mueller said the court had received a “lot of calls and voicemails” from citizens and advocacy groups concerning the case, none of which were taken into consideration.
John Balazs, a civil attorney who covers federal issues from Sacramento on a personal legal blog, noted that there were “lots” of Department of Justice attorneys in the courtroom for Wednesday’s hearing.
Benjamin B. Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California who is prosecuting the defendants at the center of the case, said the Department of Justice was pleased with Mueller’s decision.
“The question presented in this motion was not whether marijuana should be legalized for medical or recreational use, but whether decisions concerning the status of marijuana under federal law should properly be made in accordance with the science-based scheduling process set forth in the Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress,” Wagner said in a statement circulated to reporters on Wednesday.
Marijuana advocates who initially saw promise in Mueller’s decision on the 1970s-era Controlled Substances Act said they were disappointed at the last-minute change of heart.
Dale Gieringer, the director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said Mueller’s decision as a lower court judge followed the law, but that it also “showed the dysfunctionality of the current drug laws.” Mueller’s decision, once officially published by the court, opens the door for the matter to be appealed, which could have more far-reaching consequences if the appellate court overturns her decision.
Zenia Gilg, a lawyer representing the growers at the center of the case, told the Huffington Post that the group was “clearly disappointed” and that they “hoped it would turn out differently.” Gilg said the group is waiting for Mueller to officially publish her opinion through the court before they decide whether or not to take the matter to the appellate court.
“While we are disappointed with this ruling, it changes little,” NORML’s deputy director Paul Armentano told the Los Angeles Times. “We always felt this had to ultimately be decided by the [Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals] and we have an unprecedented record for the court to consider.”
Marijuana’s classification as a dangerous drug under the Congress-approved Controlled Substances Act makes it hard for scientists and academics to legally obtain the substance for purposes of research. Some research on the medicinal effectiveness of the drug has shown promising signs, and de-classifying it at a federal level could open the door for research on whether the drug is effective against a variety of ailments, advocates say.
Some research already available has paved the way for more than a dozen states including California to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Four other states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have further approved recreational use and regulated sale of marijuana to ordinary citizens.
The drug still remains illegal under federal law, and that status has prompted federal authorities in the past to conduct raids on medicinal marijuana growers, dispensaries and users who otherwise operate legally under state law, The Associated Press noted.
While the federal government still classified marijuana as a dangerous and legal substance, there are promising signs that show Washington’s view on pot use for medicinal purposes is evolving. Last year, President Obama signed a Congress-approved spending bill that prohibits the DOJ from using its $1.1 trillion in federal funding to carry out raids against pot users and dispensaries in states where medicinal marijuana is legalized.
Federal prosecutors opened the criminal matter against the California-based growers before last year’s spending bill took effect.
(Disclosure: The federal judge and prosecutor who appear in this article are involved in a separate and unrelated legal matter concerning the author of this story.)