WASHINGTON – In 1988, a federal judge brashly ruled against the Reagan administration’s drug policy and declared cannabis fit for medical use. The controversial decision nearly reclassified marijuana under the Controlled Substance Act.
September 6, 2023 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis Young’s historic ruling and recommendation to reschedule cannabis. Young’s 68-page opinion stating the plant should be moved from Schedule I to Schedule II was based on two years of review followed by two weeks of public hearings and eighteen bound notebooks of testimony. Ultimately, his ruling was rejected by DEA Administrator John Lawn, who served as the administration’s top official and final decision maker from 1985-1990.
In his ruling, Young concluded the evidence supporting the benefits of cannabis as medicine were “clear beyond any question.”
“Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” Young wrote in his decision. “By any measure of rational analysis, marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care… It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”
In a period article published in The Washington Post, reporter Michael Isikoff noted Young’s opinion made him a “hero to a small band of medical dissenters who have been arguing for years that the nation’s punitive drug laws are misguided.”
“Judge Young is a remarkable man,” Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Isikoff following the ruling. “When you read his opinion, you say, ‘Boy, there is at least somebody in the government who’s willing to speak the truth and not just go along with the established un-wisdom.”
But not everyone within the DEA shared Young’s fresh views about cannabis as medicine or his opinion of relevant subject matter experts and research studies.
“The [DEA] Administrator finds that the administrative law judge [Young] failed to act as an impartial judge in this matter,” the DEA’s denial of the petition to reclassify the substance stated. “He appears to have ignored the scientific evidence, ignored the testimony of highly credible and recognized medical experts and, instead, relied on the testimony of psychiatrists and individuals who used marijuana.”
In its denial, the DEA categorized all the cited pro-marijuana research as preliminary and insufficient to determine whether a drug has an accepted medical use.
“The Administrator does not find such evidence convincing in light of the lack of reliable, credible, and relevant scientific studies documenting marijuana’s medical utility; the opinions of highly respected, credentialed experts that marijuana does not have an accepted medical use; and statements from the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Federal Food and Drug Administration that marijuana has not been demonstrated as suitable for use as a medicine,” the DEA’s decision rejecting Young’s findings stated.
In the rejection, Lawn cited testimony from the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, National Academy of Ophthalmology, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, all of which noted a lack of scientific evidence to support the therapeutic use of cannabis in one way or another—the seemingly timeless Catch-22 that’s helped maintain the federal definition of cannabis as a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
In 1994, the Court of Appeals supported Lawn’s decision to keep cannabis classified as a Schedule I prohibited substance, and the DEA has denied subsequent rescheduling petitions.
Whether this outcome will repeat after U.S. health officials recommended Schedule III for cannabis in August is anyone’s guess, but it highlights the power held by current DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, who was appointed by the Biden Administration in 2021. Regardless of any recommendations from government health agencies, medical organizations, and decisions by judges within the DEA, the administrator holds the power to reschedule drugs in the United States.
“During her tenure as the Garden State’s attorney general under then-Governor Jon Corzine, Milgram offered cautioned support for the state’s medical-marijuana program when legislation to approve it was passed in 2010,” NORML noted leading up to Milgram’s Senate confirmation hearings.
While Milgram has not publicly shared much regarding her opinion about the medical application of cannabis, she did call New Jersey’s medical marijuana bill “workable” in 2021 during her tenure as the state’s attorney general.