War on pot defies science, doctors testify in federal court

David Downs, San Francisco Chronicle

Three medical experts testified in federal court in California Friday and Monday that modern science renders the war on marijuana unconstitutional. Decades of medical research show the drug is not the danger the government has made it out to be, they told a federal judge.

It’s a dramatic, landmark cultivation trial in the Eastern District of California with national implications. U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller is allowing a hearing on a defense motion to declare unconstitutional the continued classification of marijuana in Schedule I.

Defense witnesses Gregory Carter, MD, and Carl Hart, PhD testified in Sacramento in the case of U.S. v. Schweder, saying cannabis is one of mankind’s oldest, safest therapeutic substances. The federal classification of it as both “very dangerous” and “lacking medical use” is untenable. A second doctor, Philip Denny, MD, testified Monday and Tuesday.

Government witness Bertha Madras — PhD, and former deputy Drug Czar under President George W. Bush — argued in briefs that cannabis fails to measure up as a medicine. She equates the drug to heroin, in that humans no longer smoke poppies for pain relief.

But they are not equal. About 22,114, Americans will die from prescription drug overdoses this year, and heroin-mimicking opioid drugs kill more Americans than any other prescription drug. Cannabis has no lethal overdose level, and zero recorded deaths from overdose in human history.

San Francisco attorney Zenia Gilg and Heather Burke, both members of the NORML Legal Committee, argue in Schweder that the U.S. can’t both ignore Colorado and Washington legalization, and maintain pot is a schedule 1 drug — as dangerous as heroin, LSD and methamphetamine.

“ …the action taken by the Department of Justice is either irrational, or more likely proves the assertions made in Part I (B) of this Brief: marijuana does not fit the criteria of a Schedule I Controlled Substance.”

President Richard Nixon placed cannabis, dubbed “marijuana”, in the schedule 1 of drugs in 1971, overriding the recommendations of his hand-picked Shafer Commission, which recommended de-scheduling it. It’s remained there ever since. Americans consume 2,500-5,000 metric tons of cannabis per year.

Federal prosecutors filed the original indictment against 16 defendants in October 2011, in a case involving growing 1,884 plants in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The U.S. seeks 10-15 years for six defendants in the case.

Pot law reform advocates called the hearing evidence of a “sea change” in the country over cannabis. “This is pretty unprecedented, at least in the contemporary era — having such an evidentiary process,” said Kris Hermes for Americans for Safe Access.

Last year the DEA again denied a petition to reschedule pot, but the federal government is encountering unprecedented pushback in its assertions cannabis has no medical value. The government already patented marijuana. One in 20 California adults are estimated to have used medical cannabis to treat a serious illness, and 92 percent of them thought it helped.Twenty-three states and Washington D.C. have medical marijuana laws.

“It’s amazing to have the opportunity of several expert witnesses to testify why they think marijuana is mis-scheduled — that’s historic,” Hermes said.

Either marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and prosecutors should shut down Colorado and Washington’s recreational markets, or it’s not and the classification is wrong.

“The schizophrenic stance is untenable. They continue to speak out of both sides of their mouth,” Hermes said.

This fall, Attorney General Eric Holder said Congress should revisit marijuana’s schedule 1 classification in light of modern science.

Don Duncan, organizer with ASA attended the hearings Monday and said they were entertaining.
“[Dr. Hart] was very good. He was very eloquent. The prosecutor was on his game. It was a good tennis match.”

Hearings are scheduled to continue today.