By Maura Dolan
January 14, 2015

A Sacramento federal judge prepares to decide whether to downgrade marijuana, but ruling’s reach is limited

In a rare examination of federal marijuana law, a U.S. judge in Northern California has decided to rule on the constitutionality of a 1970 act that classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug akin to LSD and heroin.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller took the extraordinary step of holding a five-day hearing on the question late last year, with final arguments scheduled for next month. Her ruling, based on testimony and thousands of pages of briefs, exhibits and declarations, is expected later this year.

Lawyers say the case out of Sacramento marks the first time in decades that a judge has agreed to hold a fact-finding hearing on the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Mueller’s decision came in response to a pretrial defense motion in a prosecution brought by the federal government against alleged marijuana growers.

Attorneys for the defendants have argued that the federal marijuana law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and a doctrine that gives states equal sovereignty. In addition to maintaining that marijuana is safer than many non-regulated substances, the defense contends the federal government enforces marijuana law unevenly, allowing distribution of cannabis in states where it is legal and regulated by state law and cracking down elsewhere.

Prosecutors, who unsuccessfully opposed the fact-finding hearing, have countered that Congress legally placed marijuana in Schedule 1, a classification used for drugs that have no medicinal purpose, are unsafe even under medical supervision and contain a high potential for abuse. In addition to marijuana, heroin and LSD, other Schedule 1 drugs include Ecstasy and Mescaline. Because of marijuana’s Schedule 1 status, federal restrictions make it difficult for researchers to obtain legal cannabis for study.

Zenia K. Gilg, a lawyer for the growers, said scientific understanding and public acceptance of marijuana have grown substantially since courts last examined the federal classification. She cited the November election, when voters in Alaska and Oregon decided to join Colorado and Washington in making cannabis legal for recreational use. Most states already provide some legal protection for its use as medicine.

“It just shows that this country has recognized that marijuana is less harmful than, I would say, alcohol, and the law prohibiting it is absurd, particularly as it related to being up there with heroin and LSD,” said Gilg, a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Marijuana plants
Marijuana plants grow on a residential property in a vegetable garden in Lake County in Clear Lake, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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