High court allows ban on marijuana prescriptions

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a San Francisco group's challenge Monday to the federal government's refusal to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana, leaving intact the government's classification of the drug as a dangerous substance with no legitimate uses.

The advocacy group Americans for Safe Access contended that more than 200 studies, performed and reviewed by medical professionals, have established that marijuana is both safe and effective in relieving pain and nausea, and in relieving the effects of chemotherapy for cancer patients. But federal courts have deferred to the Drug Enforcement Administration's conclusion that the drug's effects have not been adequately studied.

Americans for Safe Access asked the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2002 to remove marijuana from the list of drugs with no permissible use, which also include heroin and LSD, and put it in the same classification as codeine and some steroids and barbiturates that doctors can prescribe.

The agency took nearly nine years to reject the request, saying in July 2011 that marijuana's effectiveness had not yet been confirmed by any long-term studies with large numbers of patients. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in January that the DEA had reasonably interpreted its own regulations, and the Supreme Court denied review Monday.

The advocacy group's lawyer remained optimistic.

"I think it's just a matter of time," said San Francisco attorney Joseph Elford, noting that medical studies are continuing. He said the governors of several states that have legalized marijuana for medical or personal use have also asked the DEA to reconsider the drug's status.

"It's absurd to say it has a higher abuse potential than cocaine and methamphetamine," which can be prescribed, Elford said. He said President Obama could, if he chose, reclassify marijuana with an executive order.

The appeals court, in its 3-0 ruling, acknowledged that a 1999 report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine "does indeed suggest that marijuana might have medical benefits." But the court said the DEA reasonably interpreted the report as a recommendation for more thorough studies.

"Substantial evidence supports its conclusion that such studies do not exist," the court said.

The case is Americans for Safe Access vs. DEA, 13-84.