Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What Does the War on Hemp Have to Do with the Rule of Law?

In a Findlaw column today, I lay out the case for ending DEA’s war on cannabis sativa L., the genus and species that makes pot and “industrial hemp” alike. One of the issues in the background of the column, but which I thought others might weigh in on here, is the relevance of agency rules that have been invalidated for procedural error.

Because of a statutory exemption woven into US drug laws long ago, hemp stalks, sterile seeds, and other products of industrial hemp are excepted from the definition of "marijuana." Eventually, synthetic production of THC (the active ingredient in pot) was possible and Congress amended the drug statutes to prohibit THC expressly, but it left the prohibition of marijuana in place, including the hemp exemption.

Recently, fearing who knows what, DEA took the position that the later amendment also banned all of the cannabis plant, since THC is present throughout. DEA originally issued an “interpretive rule,” followed immediately in the Federal Register by a proposed legislative rule that it finalized, declaring that all of the cannabis plant is a Schedule 1 drug. Both were invalidated by the Ninth Circuit, the first for being a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act Section 553, the second for being a “scheduling action” without the requisite trial-type hearing. And DEA never followed up with another rulemaking.

The result is that only the enabling statutes, along with DEA’s “considered” and highly publicized judgment on their interpretation, remain in force on the question. The courts that have reached the issue have split and another lawsuit is just under way in North Dakota.

My question to the blog is this: should DEA’s original reaction—that it must issue a rule with the force of law on the point to solidify everyone's rights and duties—be held against it in a subsequent proceeding where it will no doubt argue that its word on the "interpretation" is enough? Should the answer be different depending on whether it is a lower court or the Supreme Court in which DEA is litigating? Admin junkies will recognize a Brand X issue here, but it is not necessarily framed that way.

9 comments:

PG said...

On an admin note, could you give more information about Congressional statutes regarding drugs and their interplay with FDA regulations re: same?

On the one hand, I read your sentence about the statute's being amended to prohibit THC specifically, and thought, "Wouldn't it make more sense for Congress to prohibit the possession or sale of certain *chemicals* when they are not possessed or sold in accordance with the FDA's rules, than it does for Congress to prohibit certain 'drugs'?" On the other hand, I assume there's a general prohibition on selling anything for human ingestion (or injection, or snorting) that hasn't been approved by the FDA, and the Congressional statutes just provide criminal penalties for pot etc. that are much more severe than the slap on the wrist I'd get if I figured out how to make a spread that tasted like peanut butter but was peanut-allergics safe and sold it out of my trunk.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In The Common Law, Holmes notes the tendency of ancient law (and to a lesser extent even of late nineteenth century law) to treat inanimate objects and non-human animals without the capacity for complex rational decision making as culpable for harms they cause. The tendency is rooted in a basic human behavioral pattern. If you stub your toe on a rock, you may curse the rock; if your computer crashes one too many times, you may hit your computer. I have the impression that the federal government treats hemp similarly (and equally irrationally).

egarber said...

I'm not even gonna pretend I can answer your question. I'm just a caveman...

What I WILL say relates to the logic behind banning cultivation entirely because society may disagree with how a particular component might be used.

Extending this logic, castor bean farming should be illegal (I'm pretty sure it's not); after all, ricin -- considered 10 times deadlier than cobra poison -- is derived from castor beans.

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