Second Circuit Denies Challenge to Marijuana’s Schedule I Classification

People in the cannabis industry know that marijuana is federally classified as a schedule I controlled substance. Schedule I means the drug has no recognized medical value, has a high potential for abuse, and cannot be safely administered even under a doctor’s supervision. Other schedule I drugs include heroin, methamphetamine, and several psychedelic substances including LSD, psilocybin, peyote, and MDMA. Aside from the very serious criminal aspects of the classification, the schedule I classification means that trying to enforce a contract involving cannabis in federal court is practically a non-starter.

The defendants challenging marijuana’s schedule I status

A group of defendants convicted of federal marijuana charges, including conspiracy, sought to overturn their conspiracy charge by arguing the Controlled Substance Act’s (CSA) classification of marijuana as a schedule I drug violated their due process and equal protection rights. They argued that marijuana’s scheduling has no rational basis because it does not meet the criteria for schedule I classification. (E.g. it has a medically accepted use and so does not meet the Schedule 1 criteria).

The Second Circuit framework

This week the Second Circuit denied this challenge to marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification. (Opinion here). The defendants did not request a reclassification of marijuana. Instead the defendants argued the court should “strike the offending statutory classification as unconstitutional” and leave reclassification to Congress. The trial court believed such a challenge must be asserted through a petition to the Attorney General and proceed through administrative means. But the trial court nonetheless concluded the defendants may challenge the classification of marijuana through a direct constitutional attack in a criminal proceeding.

The trial court applied what is known as “rational basis review.” For non-lawyers in the audience, this is the lowest form of review of a governmental action. On the other side of the coin is “strict scrutiny.” Although the trial court agreed with defendants that marijuana is used for medical purposes, the trial court said that alone is not sufficient to demonstrate marijuana is misclassified. The standard, said the trial court, is whether “there is any conceivable basis that might support the classification.”

Any “conceivable basis” that “might” support the classification. This is a very, very low bar.  The Second Circuit agreed that is the standard. The classic formulation of the rational basis review is that the challenged governmental action (or here classification of marijuana) only be rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. The Second Circuit first set out this standard before explaining that means “any conceivable basis.”

Defendants argued that it was not rational for the government to conclude that marijuana meets each of the statutory criteria for Schedule 1 classification. Sounds reasonable, no? If marijuana has a medical use it would not seem “rational” to conclude that it does not meet the Schedule 1 criteria. Ergo marijuana is misclassified.

This was the wrong way to look at it according to the Second Circuit, which determined that defendants’ analysis improperly tethered the constitutional question to statutory factors.

Jurisprudence underpinning the Second Circuit analysis

The Second Circuit looked to a 1993 Supreme Court decision, F.C.C. v. Beach Commc’ns, Inc., 508 U.S. 307 (1993). That case arose out of an FCC proceeding concerning the agency’s definition of “cable system” as used in the Cable Communications Act of 1984 (Cable Act). In an opinion by then-new-to-the-court Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court ruled that a:

“statutory classification that neither proceeds along suspect lines nor infringes fundamental constitutional rights must be upheld against equal protection challenge if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification.”

So long as there is a “plausible reason” for Congress’ action, the Court’s inquiry ends. The Supreme Court went further, stating that a classification in a statute is presumptively valid, and that those attacking a legislative classification must “negative every conceivable basis which might support it” and it is “irrelevant” whether the “conceived reason” actually motivated the legislature. That is a tough — some might say nearly impossible — bar.

The Second Circuit holding

With this background, the Second Circuit easily dismissed the defendants’ challenge to marijuana’s schedule I classification. The court reasoned there are “numerous conceivable public health and safety reasons” to justify Congress’ and the DEA’s continued regulation of marijuana. The court noted the DEA recently described marijuana as inducing “various psychoactive effects that can lead to behavioral impairment,” and the DEA believed marijuana can “decrease IQ,” and cause problems related to family, school, and work. These “reasons” came from a 2016 DEA denial of a petition to reschedule marijuana. A lot has changed since 2016. Not enough, apparently, at the federal level, where courts continue to go backwards. It’s too bad the Court did not consider Warren/Booker letter to the Attorney General, or any other number of compelling arguments.

And so, in the lee of Congressional and Executive branch inaction, the Second Circuit denied defendants’ challenge to marijuana’s schedule I classification. The racist War on Drugs continues.