Last week started badly for Jeff Sessions and only got worse. First it was his boss, the president, calling him names and publicly questioning his ability to do his job. And then, as if we were watching his drug policy karma play out in real time, came the lawsuit.
Four individuals – a retired NFL player, a military veteran, an 11-year-old girl with a seizure disorder, and a 6-year-old boy who has been in hospice care since his first birthday – and a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing marginalized and underrepresented communities into the cannabis industry are suing the federal government. Specifically, they name Attorney General Sessions (in his capacity as AG), DEA Acting Director Chuck Rosenberg (in his capacity as DEA Director), the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the United States of America as defendants in their suit.
Together, these plaintiffs contend that cannabis has been improperly included on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. And the lawyers handling the case believe they have a better chance than anyone who’s ever tried something like this before. “The current political environment is ripe for this issue,” says Lauren Rudick, an attorney with Hiller, PC who is close to the case. “We have a real shot because we’re doing something really different.”
The complaint, filed by attorney Michael Hiller in the Southern District of New York, brings together this diverse group of people in order to build a wide-ranging argument that marijuana’s categorization as a Schedule I drug is so “irrational” as to be unconstitutional.
The basis of the lawsuit rests on a logical fallacy: cannabis cannot possibly be considered a Schedule I drug because it does not meet the appropriate criteria. A Schedule I substance must have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. If cannabis is medically legal in 29 states plus DC, and if the US government has, as the suit claims, “exploited cannabis economically for more than a decade by securing a medical cannabis patent and entering into license agreements with medical licensees,” how can it be said that the plant has no medical use?
“No one has ever attempted to raise the issue of federal policy in light of current regulatory environment, wherein 29 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical use,” Rudick explains. “Considering all the medical research that has been done, it’s a completely irrational stance for the government to take. When laws are so irrational that they cannot be squared with legitimate government interests, they’ve got to be rendered invalid.”
Furthermore, the suit asserts that the US government does not believe and never believed that cannabis fit the criteria for Schedule I. The real reason cannabis was improperly scheduled, according to the complaint, was to circumvent the rights of minorities, war protestors, and others the government deemed unfavorable during the social and political upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s.
The legal team intends to lay out all of the reasons why cannabis has been inappropriately scheduled and to focus on the negative consequences of cannabis prohibition – how it has destroyed communities, stripped citizens of their due process rights, and unfairly targeted people of color.
Each plaintiff brings a different angle to the lawsuit. Former professional football player Marvin Washington is suing because cannabis’s prohibited status makes him ineligible for Federal Minority Business Enterprise grants to start a medical cannabis business. Jose Belen, who served his country in Iraq and now suffers from PTSD, wants the right to enter a military base and travel throughout the country by plane.
Alexis Bortell and Jagger Cotte, the two children named as plaintiffs, have been forced to become medical refugees or to surreptitiously obtain cannabis medicine that greatly improves the quality of their lives. They, too, are suing for the right to travel freely through and to states where medical cannabis is currently illegal. The Cannabis Cultural Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, argues that the Controlled Substances Act as it pertains to cannabis was enacted to target people of color and that it has had the effect of preventing people of color from accessing this new legal industry.
Attorneys hope that the breadth of this case convinces people on all points on the political spectrum that cannabis prohibition is unconstitutional. Rudick emphasizes: “This is a bipartisan issue that both sides can wrap their arms around. There’s the Commerce Clause, where congress has exceeded its authority and is infringing upon states’ rights, which will curry favor with conservatives. Then there are big progressive components like social justice.”
Despite the legal complexities, at the heart of this lawsuit are the aggrieved – those who have been so negatively impacted by the federal prohibition on cannabis that they decided to take on their own government. These children, families, and organizations are transforming their personal tragedy into a rallying cry for safe access and social justice. “They’re very brave,” Rudick says. “They’re leading a monumental effort.” And we’ll be cheering them on all the way.
Read the entire complaint here: