Medical marijuana activists cite little-known law in suit
February 21, 2007
Bob Egelko, San Francisco ChronicleMedical marijuana advocates tried a new approach Wednesday in their tug-of-war with the federal government, filing suit under a law that requires the government to correct its own misstatements -- including, the advocates say, the assertion that marijuana has no medical value. "Citizens have a right to expect the government to use the best available information for policy decisions,'' said Alan Morrison, a Stanford Law School lecturer and an attorney in the lawsuit by Americans for Safe Access.
The suit was filed in federal court in San Francisco under the Data Quality Act, a little-known statute signed by President Bush in 2001. It directs federal agencies to allow members of the public to "seek and obtain correction'' of false or misleading government information that affects them.
Morrison said the law was originally pushed by businesses that objected to government statements taking dim views of products or entire industries, notably Clinton administration reports that listed industrial activities among the causes of global warming. He said he knew of only two lawsuits filed under the statute, neither of them successful.
Americans for Safe Access invoked the 2001 law in a complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services in October 2004, saying its members included seriously ill people who had been discouraged from using marijuana by the department's position that the drug has "no currently accepted medical use.''
The federal government classifies marijuana among the most dangerous drugs and has won court rulings allowing it to prosecute suppliers and patients in California, where medical marijuana was legalized by a 1996 initiative.
The lawsuit said the agency was ignoring scientific studies, including a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine that found that the active ingredients in marijuana could help relieve pain, nausea and loss of appetite associated with illnesses, though it cautioned that smoking marijuana can be harmful.
More recently, researchers reported last week that HIV-positive patients at San Francisco General Hospital experienced relief of searing pain in their hands and feet after smoking marijuana cigarettes in a state-funded study.
The suit said the department's only responses to the 2004 complaint have been perfunctory denials, in 2005 and 2006. Those responses did not address the scientific evidence and instead noted that the Drug Enforcement Administration was considering a separate request to reclassify marijuana, the suit said.
Morrison said the department could have complied with the law by explaining its current position and posting links to the medical studies on its Web site to promote public debate. The suit accuses the department of violating the law and seeks court orders requiring the department to stop asserting that marijuana has no medical value and to make "appropriate corrections'' to past statements.
Health and Human Services spokeswoman Christina Pearson declined to comment on the suit. She referred a reporter to the Food and Drug Administration's April 2006 statement that federal evaluations have found "no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana.''