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In a case that could make the federal government reconsider how it classifies marijuana, a lawyer urged a Ninth Circuit panel Thursday to make the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reassess its 49-year-old position that cannabis has no accepted medical use.  The Ninth Circuit includes California, thus this is a case of significance for the issue in workers’ compensation claims for our state.

“It’s a relic of a bygone era,” attorney Shane Pennington told a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel.

According to the report in Courthouse News, Pennington represents Dr. Suzanne Sisley, an Arizona-based medical marijuana researcher, and three veterans who claim they suffer ongoing harm from the federal government’s refusal to reclassify cannabis as a drug with medicinal benefits. Their Ninth Circuit petition highlights research Sisley has conducted using marijuana to treat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Despite the fact that medical marijuana is legal in 36 states, the DEA has classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug – the most restrictive category – since 1972. Congress empowered the DEA to decide how drugs should be classified in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That was around the same time former President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.”

The petitioners argue a five-factor test the DEA established in 1992 to determine if a drug has any medical benefit is arbitrary, leads to absurd results and contradicts the will of Congress.

But most of the Ninth Circuit hearing focused not on the wisdom of the DEA’s decision or its criteria for categorizing drugs. Rather, it focused on whether the petitioners have standing to bring their challenge in federal court.

That’s because Sisley and the veterans are challenging the denial of a petition they never filed. The one-page, handwritten petition asking the DEA to reclassify marijuana was filed by Stephen Zyszkiewicz and Jeramy Bowers in January 2020. The DEA denied the petition four months later. Zyszkiewicz and Bowers have two separate lawsuits pending over the denial in the District of Columbia.

This is a really odd case,” Circuit Judge Willaim Fletcher, a Bill Clinton appointee, told lawyers challenging the DEA’s decision. “You appealed the denial of somebody else’s petition. I’ve never seen a case like this.”

But it’s not unprecedented, according to Matthew Zorn, another lawyer representing Sisley and the veterans.

To support his position, Zorn cited the seminal 2007 Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA, which forced the federal agency to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. In that case, Massachusetts was challenging the denial of a petition filed by someone else.

“None of the judges at the D.C. Circuit or on the Supreme Court thought anything about it, that Massachusetts was filing a petition for review on another party’s petition,” Zorn said.

Drawing a distinction, Justice Department lawyer Daniel Aguilar told the panel that Massachusetts had standing in that case only because the Supreme Court found it deserved “special solicitude” as a “sovereign state.”

Responding to a question posed by Circuit Judge Daniel Collins, a Donald Trump appointee, Aguilar acknowledged the Massachusetts v. EPA court never squarely addressed the question of whether a party can challenge the denial of a petition it did not file. But he insisted that no case law exists to support that notion.

Fletcher indicated that he agrees with that position.

U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Watford, a Barack Obama appointee, suggested that allowing people to challenge decisions on petitions they didn’t file could lead to a flood of litigation. Potentially tens of millions of people allegedly harmed by the DEA’s decision could file their own challenges to the petition denial in separate circuit courts across the country, Watford said.

After 33 minutes of debate, the panel took the arguments under submission.