Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Trying To Make The Government Tell The Truth

Ever hear of the Information Quality Act (IQA)? Not many people have, and many in the government wish they hadn’t. Passed in 2001, the IQA requires information disseminated by federal agencies to be accurate and objective. It also establishes a mechanism by which people affected by inaccurate information can seek to have it corrected. Basically, it’s saying that the federal government must tell the truth and when it doesn’t, there’s a way to make them correct their “mistakes.” Pretty crazy, eh? The government telling the truth! What’s next? Flying monkeys?

As it turns out, one group in particular is aware of the IQA and is using it as a new tactic to try to end the federal government’s war on medical marijuana. Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in February, 2007 demanding that the federal government cease issuing misinformation and correct its statements on medical marijuana. In particular, they want the government to stop saying that there is no accepted medical use for marijuana in the United States. This is important because it is one of the criteria that is keeping marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance. If there are indeed medical uses for marijuana, then it can should be rescheduled. Makes sense. To me anyway.

On April 14, 2009 (only a little over two years after the lawsuit was filed) the Ninth Circuit Court heard oral arguments for this case. There’s a reasonably decent audio recording of those arguments here, in case you’d like to listen to them for yourself. (It’s a little garbled in spots.) It is however a lot of legal mumbo jumbo to wade through, so I’ll take the liberty of translating those arguments into plain English for you. Please be aware though that I am not a lawyer.

The attorney representing the Department of Health and Human Services (the defendant) seemed to be making two main points. One is that the DEA is already considering a petition to reschedule marijuana, and that’s where this issue should be resolved. She argued that the DEA proceedings make the IQA irrelevant in this case. The second main point she made is that the IQA is not enforceable. It is up to individual agencies how or if they respond to requests to correct information, and there is no recourse if they deny a request. In other words, the HHS is saying it's not their problem, and even if it was, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

ASA (the plaintiff) are basing their entire argument on the IQA. The information that the government has been disseminating on the medical uses of marijuana is wrong and, according to the IQA, must be corrected. ASA are representing the “affected persons” in this case—someone must be affected by the inaccurate information in order to request it be corrected. Being affected gives one “standing” to bring such a case before the court. He also pointed out that the DEA proceedings the HHS attorney mentioned are not actually ongoing. There has been a request to reschedule, but after several years it has not been acted on. So the issue is not really being decided by the DEA at this time, and the IQA is indeed relevant.

What it boils down to is the same old government response used whenever anybody tries to tell them they are wrong. I like to call it the “you're not the boss of me” argument. Either the individual or group does not have “standing,” (i.e., they are not permitted to bring such a case before the court in the first place) or the decision of the court is not enforceable by anyone. Reminds me of that Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king.” In this case, it might be more appropriate to paraphrase that saying: “It’s good to be the U.S. government.”

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