Issue of the Case
When 3 citizens of a Southern state file suit against government officials to have a state statute classifying marijuana as an illegal substance declared unconstitutional, should the courts make such a declaration and issue an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the laws?

Facts of the Case
The citizens filed a lawsuit against the governor and the attorney general of the state because of their roles in administering and interpreting statutes adopted by the legislature. One of the plaintiffs reported wanting to use the marijuana for treatment of an opioid addiction derived from use of a legitimate medication as well as for chronic back pain. The second claimant asserted use of the drug to treat benzodiazepine addiction arising originally from the use of prescribed pharmaceuticals, along with bipolar disorder and irritable bowel syndrome. The third wanted to use the drug for alcoholism, injuries suffered during service in combat, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Their original court filing requested that the state trial court judge grant declaratory relief, an order declaring the law to be unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable, as well as grant an injunction prohibiting officials from enforcing the relevant statutes.

The statutes contained a provision that a person “is guilty of trafficking in marijuana when he or she knowingly and unlawfully traffics in marijuana.”

Further, another provision stated that a person “is guilty of possession of marijuana when he or she knowingly and unlawfully possesses marijuana.”

The arguments advanced by the plaintiffs were that the refusal to exempt marijuana for medicinal use were unconstitutionally arbitrary and violative of their right to privacy.

Both officials in the matter filed individual motions with the trial court judge seeking to dismiss the action. The 3 plaintiffs filed responses, and the trial court judge conducted a hearing. Following the hearing, the judge entered an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ petition. He stated that the constitutionality of the state’s marijuana laws had already been addressed in an opinion by the state Supreme Court about 15 years earlier. Further, he ruled that the arguments advanced by the 3 plaintiffs were nonjusticiable political questions; that is, they were matters not capable of being decided by a court.

The 3 plaintiffs did not agree with that outcome and took the matter to the state Court of Appeals. Their argument at the appellate level was that the state statutes criminalizing the possession and trafficking of marijuana represented an arbitrary exercise of legislative power over their lives, thereby violating provisions in the state constitution.

The Ruling
The Court of Appeals ruled that the statutes are not impermissibly arbitrary, siding with the governor and the attorney general.

The Court’s Reasoning
The appellate court first focused on the ruling by the trial court judge that the claims advanced by the 3 plaintiffs were not justifiable because “they raise a political question within the exclusive purview of the legislature.” The higher court ruled that the political question doctrine is closely related to the separation of powers, a basic precept of our system of government.

With regard to the specifics of this case, the court pointed out that the trial court judge concluded that “the case presents a political question because the legislature alone has the constitutional imperative to legislate to protect the public health and welfare by regulating marijuana in the state.”

The higher court noted that, while the legislature does indeed have that authority, its actions are “constrained by the dictates of the state and federal constitutions.”

Legislation enacted by the legislature “may not trespass upon the constitutional rights of citizens.”

Although that is in fact so, the courts’ deference to the legislative branch is substantial in keeping with the concept of separation of powers. Statutes are presumed to be constitutional.

It referred to an earlier ruling by the state Supreme Court that read, “a statute will not be struck down as unconstitutional, unless its violation of the constitution is clear, complete, and unequivocal.”

The appellate court did not view the legislation as affecting fundamental rights. And, the statute that defines marijuana as an illicit substance relates to a rational basis for the exercise of legislative authority.

Joseph L. Fink III, BSPharm, JD, DSc (Hon), FAPhA, is a professor of pharmacy law and policy and the Kentucky Pharmacists Association Endowed Professor of Leadership at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in Lexington.