* Drug agency improperly classifies marijuana, group says
* More research into medical effects needed, agency says
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON, Oct 16 Supporters of marijuana
rights asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to do what
Congress and U.S. presidents have resisted for decades and help
ease the level of regulation surrounding the popular
Oakland, Calif.-based Americans for Safe Access said there
was no reason for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
to control marijuana as tightly as it does heroin.
The argument is a new tack for marijuana supporters who have
already won local approval for medical use in 16 states and
Americans for Safe Access lawyer Joseph Elford said the DEA
ignored recent evidence of marijuana's medical benefits when, in
2011, the agency declined to ease regulation. Federal law
required the DEA to take that evidence into account, he said.
"This game of 'gotcha' will continue indefinitely unless
this court intervenes," Elford told a three-judge panel of the
appeals court in Washington, D.C.
The federal government divides drugs into five categories,
or schedules. Schedule I requires the strictest control and
covers drugs such as marijuana and heroin.
Cocaine is a Schedule II drug, and prescription medications
rank further down in the system. The drugs are ranked by
potential for abuse, medical value and risk of dependence.
Elford's group wants the appeals court to force the DEA to
hold a hearing on marijuana's classification, which the group
believes should be Schedule III or lower.
Forty-two percent of Americans age 12 or older have used
marijuana at some point, according to a 2011 survey by the U.S.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
DEA NOT PERSUADED
The DEA, the primary enforcer of U.S. drug laws, argued it
already has considered all the evidence and was not persuaded.
"They don't have the type of study that would allow them or
any other expert to reach a conclusion about the medical utility
of marijuana," government lawyer Lena Watkins told the court.
Most recent scientific studies, she said, either did not
involve humans or were too preliminary.
Watkins described marijuana as dangerous, saying it had
"adverse physical and psychological consequences" and had been
"implicated in hundreds of thousands of hospital visits."
This is the first time the appeals court has considered
marijuana's classification since 2002. The court did not reach
the heart of the issue at that time, deciding instead that the
man who brought the case did not have real damages over which to
The judges suggested the same obstacle might block the
present case, but marijuana supporters are relying in part on a
disabled military veteran who depends on the government for his
healthcare and is barred from even asking his doctor about
marijuana treatment for pain and trauma.
"That seems pretty straightforward," Judge Harry Edwards
told the government's Watkins.
Watkins said the prospects still seemed tenuous that the
veteran, Michael Krawitz, would legally obtain marijuana because
his state, Virginia, has not approved the drug for medical use.
Another judge expressed wariness at delving too deeply into
the science of marijuana.
"Don't we have to defer to the agency?" asked Judge Merrick
Garland. "We're not scientists. They are."
The case is Americans for Safe Access, et al, v. Drug
Enforcement Administration, U.S. Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia Circuit, No. 11-1265.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Todd Eastham)