By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to overturn the United States' longstanding prohibition of marijuana, the latest court battle over federal policy under President Donald Trump's administration.
The argument, before U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan, came about a month after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would abandon a policy of former President Barack Obama that had left regulation of the drug largely up to states.
Several states including, California, Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 29 states allow some medical use.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in July, include the parents of two children who use marijuana to treat illness, and former New York Jets player Marvin Washington, who works with a company that develops marijuana-based products.
They claim that the federal ban on marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution. Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is classified as a "Schedule I" drug, meaning that it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and no medical use. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and LSD.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Dolinger, arguing for the government, said federal law did not allow the plaintiffs to challenge the marijuana ban in court. Instead, he said, they must bring a petition through the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The agency process is exhaustive," he said.
Michael Hiller, lawyer for the plaintiffs, countered that the process was "futile," and that there was no "rational basis" for marijuana to remain on Schedule I.
One of the children in the lawsuit, Alexis Bortell, successfully treats seizures using the drug, while another, Jagger Cotte, has used it to alleviate pain associated with a neurological condition called Leigh's Disease, Hiller said.
"I represent people who need cannabis to live," he said.
Hellerstein expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs during the hearing.
"How could anyone say that your clients' lives have not been saved by marijuana?" he asked at one point.
However, the judge said he was not sure whether he had the authority to reschedule the drug. He also dismissed Heller's argument that the prohibition was motivated by political concerns and racism when it was passed.
"The law is the law," the judge said. "I'm sworn to enforce the law."
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)