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Marijuana advocates lost a major battle over federal anti-drug law in April, but the circumstances of the defeat suggest they’re getting closer to winning the war.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly MuellerA judge in California rejected a lawsuit that sought to reclassify cannabis under federal law. Currently the drug is listed along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD in the most restrictive category of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), but activists hoped to move it to a less restrictive listing.

U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller said she nearly ruled in favor of rescheduling, a process that could rapidly lead to the nationwide legalization of marijuana. It would certainly make it easier for states to legalize without the fear of federal intervention.

But Mueller said she concluded the decision belongs to Congress, not the courts.

“This is not the court and this is not the time” to overturn the CSA, she said in her ruling, which was issued April 15. But the judge noted “the landscape has changed” in the 45 years since Congress passed the law.

States could legalize without fear of feds

Cannabis proponents had hoped to take a bite out of the CSA and make it easier to pass legalization statutes in additional states. With marijuana bumped from the most restrictive schedule, it would also be much easier for doctors to prescribe the drug in the open, without having to use unofficial “recommendations” or fear arrest by the feds.

The case was seen as an opportunity to reshape federal drug law, but any victory would have been limited. That’s because the ruling only applies to the specific facts of the suit that came before the court. Still, advocates hoped a victory in California might pave the way for further court rulings that could soften the CSA until Congress decides to change it.

A favorable ruling in Mueller’s court “would have been significant because you would have had a federal judge acknowledging what a majority of the public has already concluded: that marijuana does not meet the three criteria of a Schedule 1 drug,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML.

CSA restrictions not based on science

Marijuana JointThe case started with a marijuana bust in Northern California. The defendants sought to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that the CSA’s restrictions on marijuana are arbitrary and not based on science, a violation of the constitution.

Mueller’s decision means the criminal case will move to trial. Defense attorneys said they were disappointed by the judge’s call.

“I felt that the judge was leaning to grant the motion from our previous hearings,” he said.

That perception was reflected in her decision to hold a fact-finding hearing last year with expert testimony on cannabis science. No previous judge has given such serious attention to arguments against the CSA.

Alex Kreit, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and a national drug policy expert, said the hearing was a “sign that at least some judges are increasingly skeptical of marijuana’s status under federal law.” So even though it was a loss, Mueller’s ruling could encourage marijuana policy reform down the road.

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