On Wednesday, advocates and professionals in the cannabis industry descended on a federal court in New York to watch Justice Department lawyers try to dismiss a case against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The suit involves a motley crew of plaintiffs: Alexis Bortell and Jager Cotte, both pediatric medical marijuana patients, Jose Belen, an Army combat veteran who uses cannabis to treat his PTSD, Marvin Washington, a former New York Jet-turned cannabis entrepreneur, and the Cannabis Cultural Association, a non-profit dedicated to ending the war on drugs and promoting people of color in the cannabis industry.
Over the years, many have attempted to challenge the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance. Wednesday’s hearing was both an example of how far the country has come on the issue and how far there still is to go. During the hearing, Judge Alvin Hellerstein considered the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the suit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Dolinger argued that the case should be dismissed because “courts around the country have considered similar or identical claims and have rejected them.” Dolinger and Hellerstein spent a good deal of time discussing the case of U.S. v. Kiffer, which affirmed the drug’s Schedule I status.
“When they talk about Kiffer, a 1973 case… you really don’t know the rest of the history,” Michael Hiller, lead counsel for plaintiffs in the case, told reporters after the hearing. He cited numerous developments since 1973, including the government’s Investigational New Drug program, Nixon’s Schafer Commission, the federal government’s very own cannabis patent, and the emergence of state-level marijuana programs.
“There is a well-established body of case law that when the facts change, the courts have to change too,” said Hiller. “If you only decided case law based upon what people thought years before, we would never have Brown vs Board of Education… We would never have Windsor. We wouldn’t have marriage equality.”
Indeed, while other attempts to challenge marijuana’s Schedule I status have failed, the atmosphere in the court reflected the times. Supporters of cannabis reform showed up in droves, quickly filling the court and spilling into an overflow room. They laughed and cheered when the judge grilled Dolinger, who seemingly struggled to answer some of his questions. They scoffed when Dolinger cited Kiffer, suggesting that marijuana’s Schedule I status “was constitutionally rational.”
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