The United States Supreme Court has dismissed Nebraska & Oklahoma v Colorado, a landmark case that threatened to reverse Colorado’s marijuana legislation and undermine the nation’s efforts to legalize marijuana.
In the case, the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma argued that Colorado’s marijuana legalization in 2012 caused strain to their law enforcement resources through an increase in marijuana-related offenses. Because this was a dispute between states, Nebraska and Oklahoma were able to go straight to the Supreme Court through original jurisdiction, which allows the Supreme Court to see any case involving one state harming another.
Had the plaintiffs been heard by the court, Colorado’s Amendment 64 could have been threatened. It would set a similar precedent for other states that have also legalized cannabis.
Before Monday, The Obama Administration had urged the court to reject the case, as original jurisdiction is a rarely-used technique that is typically restricted to border disputes.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said to the court:
“Nebraska and Oklahoma essentially contend that Colorado’s authorization of licensed intrastate marijuana production and distribution increases the likelihood that third parties will commit criminal offenses in Nebraska and Oklahoma by bringing marijuana purchased from licensed entities in Colorado into those states. But they do not allege that Colorado has directed or authorized any individual to transport marijuana into their territories in violation of their laws.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, without comment. The ruling was opposed by Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.,
“There’s no question about it: This is good news for legalization supporters.” said Tom Angell, Chairman of Marijuana Majority,
“This case, if it went forward and the Court ruled the wrong way, had the potential to roll back many of the gains our movement has achieved to date. And the notion of the Supreme Court standing in the way could have cast a dark shadow on the marijuana ballot measures voters will consider this November. “
Nebraska and Oklahoma now have the option to pursue their case in lower courts.
“At the end of the day, if officials in Nebraska and Oklahoma are upset about how much time and resources their police are spending on marijuana cases, as they said in their briefs, they should join Colorado in replacing prohibition with legalization.” said Angell.
“That will allow their criminal justice systems to focus on real crime, and it will generate revenue that can be used to pay for healthcare, education and public safety programs.”
In a historical move on Wednesday Nov. 4, Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to the Senate to remove cannabis from federal scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. This is the first time a bill to end federal cannabis prohibition has been filed in the United States Senate.
The legislation, cited as ‘‘Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015,” would remove cannabis from it’s current Schedule I status, and repeal certain cannabis related penalties. The bill amends the Controlled Substances Act to be void of “marihuana” and ‘‘tetrahydrocannabinols.’’ This means that cannabis and all derived concentrates would no longer be classified as having no medicinal value in the United States. This would leave it up to each individual state to choose whether or not to legalize without intervention from the federal government.
Should the legislation introduced by Sen. Sanders be approved, shipping and transporting cannabis would remain illegal. Anyone caught illegally transporting would face up to one year in prison and fines.
Veteran activist and founder of Marijuana Majority, Tom Angell, pointed out that the introduction of this legislation proves that the rejection of the legalization initiative, Issue 3, by Ohio voters on Tuesday had nothing to do with the overall support for cannabis policy reform in America.
“The introduction of this bill proves that the defeat of the Ohio marijuana monopoly measure that wasn’t widely supported in our movement isn’t doing anything to slow down our national momentum.”
“This is the first time a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. A growing majority of Americans want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment from the DEA, and lawmakers should listen.”
The most recent Gallup Poll showed that the majority of American voters support ending cannabis prohibition in the United States with 58 percent of participants responding that the use of marijuana should be legal.
photo credit: NYULocal
Even with marijuana legalization expanding to more and more states, the number of cannabis-related arrests was still on the rise in 2014.
According to recently released FBI data, there were 700,993 marijuana arrests throughout the United States in 2014. That number averages out to one arrest every 45 seconds.
Drug crimes made up the largest category of offenses that people were arrested for in 2014, with marijuana arrests making up 44.9 percent of all drug-related arrests. Nearly 90 percent of all those arrests were for minor possession alone.
Comparing 2014 to the previous year, there were 693,482 marijuana arrests in 2013. With an increase of over 7,000 more arrests than the year before, it seems as if national cannabis reform is struggling to positively impact law enforcements perception of marijuana.
Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority and activist for marijuana policy reform, spoke on the recently released statistics,
“It’s unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal. A record number of states are expected to vote on legalizing marijuana next year, so we hope and expect to see these numbers significantly dropping soon. There’s just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved.”
As states continue to work towards reform, whether it comes in the form of decriminalization or complete recreational legalization, it will be interesting to see whether these arrest numbers decrease next year or continue to rise.
It is no secret that most of the progress made regarding both medical and recreational marijuana legalization across the nation has been made at the state level. While federal authorities and Congress block research efforts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) continues to bust dispensaries and families in California, Colorado, and Washington, states continue to push forward with progressive legislation.
The latest example of state efforts to decrease federal interference with state laws or policies has come from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which this week approved a resolution asking Congress that federal laws “be amended to explicitly allow states to set their own marijuana and hemp policies without federal interference.”
The preamble of the resolution explicitly refers to both hemp and marijuana and proclaims that the federal government has little power over states in terms of dictating whether and how they legalize all varieties of the plant — for any purpose.
“The federal government cannot force a state to criminalize cultivating, possessing, or distributing marijuana or hemp — whether for medical, recreational, industrial, or other uses — because doing so would constitute unconstitutional commandeering.”
The DOJ’s reliance on the Controlled Substances Act and the Schedule I status of cannabis — which legally defines the herb as totally lacking in medical benefit — has prevented cannabis-related businesses from activities such as utilizing banking services (regulated at the federal level) and claiming standardized business expenses on tax return filings.
Other legislative efforts, such as the CARERS Act sponsored by senators Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Rand Paul (Kentucky), are currently alive in Congress and would reclassify cannabis as Schedule II, allowing robust research and less federal interference. The CARERS Act would also allow cannabis businesses to utilize banking services, permit Veteran’s Administration physicians to recommend cannabis, and even legalize interstate commerce in CBD oil (which contains no THC and, thus, delivers no psychoactive effects to users, making it safe for children).
The NCSL resolution recognizes that states will disagree on the best way to legalize and regulate production and distribution of hemp, medical marijuana, and recreational cannabis. The resolution:
“…recognizes that its members have differing views on how to treat marijuana and hemp in their states and believes that states and localities should be able to set whatever marijuana and hemp policies work best to improve the public safety, health, and economic development of their communities.”
Tom Angell, Chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said of the resolution, “Overarching federal prohibition laws still stand in the way of full and effective implementation. These state lawmakers are demanding that the federal government stop impeding their ability to set and carry out marijuana laws that work best for their own communities.”
The White House has taken action to immediately remove a long-standing, bureaucratic hurdle required to research the medical benefits of marijuana.
The former process, established in May 1999, made it nearly impossible for researchers to gain access to the plant for scientific studies. It required that all privately funded marijuana studies in the United States submit a study proposal to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review board. Then the proposal also had to be reviewed by the Public Health Service (PHS) to determine the “scientific and ethical soundness” of the study. Next, a marijuana permit would have to be obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). If all of those steps were approved, the cannabis to studied must come from only one source — the drug supply program from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Both review processes by the FDA and PHS shared similar goals. They aimed to guide research on drug development while assuring appropriate treatment of human subjects. Advocates of medical marijuana research often argued that the second review by PHS was unnecessary, and many requests have been made to eliminate the PHS review process.
No other Schedule I substances, including heroin and LSD, have been required to go through the extra step of being reviewed by the PHS. Since the 1961 international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (amended in 1972), marijuana has been listed as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. The Schedule I classification is reserved for substances that are deemed as having no medicinal value and the highest potential for abuse. It is strange to label a plant that has been legalized for medicinal purposes in nearly half of the United States as having no medicinal value — especially when the federal government owns a patent on marijuana “cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.”
Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, spoke on removing cannabis from the list of Schedule I substances:
“The next step should be moving marijuana out of Schedule I to a more appropriate category, which the administration can do without any further Congressional action. Given what the president and surgeon general have already said publicly about marijuana’s relative harms and medical uses, it’s completely inappropriate for it to remain in a schedule that’s supposed to be reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value.”
In a notice expected to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, June 23, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that the secondary PHS review “overlaps in several important ways” with alternative approval processes and “is no longer necessary to support the conduct of scientifically-sound studies into the potential therapeutic uses of marijuana.”
Following the elimination of the PHS review, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) will now assist in facilitating marijuana-based research. It will still be required that a marijuana permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration be obtained, as well as getting medical marijuana from the Drug Supply Program run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to the notice, the removal of the PHS review phase should assist in streamlining the application and approval processes for cannabis research.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a leader in Congress for marijuana reform, shared his approval of the policy change in a recent press release:
“Today’s decision by HHS is a significant step toward improving an antiquated system that unfairly targets marijuana above and beyond other substances in research. I hope this action will facilitate easier access to marijuana for medical researchers. Considering the widespread use of medical marijuana, it is absolutely essential that we allow doctors and scientists to research the therapeutic benefits and risks of its use.”
Rep. Blumenauer also stated that that he is “working on legislation to address these issues, and looks forward to working with the Administration and my colleagues in Congress to further increase research.”
Blumenauer was a part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including three other state Representatives, who sought out additional cosigners of a letter in May 2014 that urged the elimination of the PHS review process.
While this policy change will help promote further marijuana research, there are still more barriers for cannabis than any other drug. The NIDA monopoly on medical marijuana research in the United States does not apply to other drugs, which makes work with cocaine and heroin easier for researchers than cannabis.
Although the removal of the PHS review is a step in the right direction, Angell believes more can be done for medical marijuana research:
“The president has often said that drug policy should be dictated by unimpeded science instead of ideology, and it’s great to see the Obama administration finally starting to take some real action to back that up. But there’s more to be done. Hopefully today’s action is a sign of more to come.”
Hopefully this policy change will serve as the starting point for continued improvements in medical marijuana research, now that the extra barrier has been removed. We may be able to understand the true healing potential of cannabis in the near future.