Justices rule out medical marijuana

8-0 decision says `necessity' plea won't pass muster

May 15, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a major setback for the medical marijuana movement, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal drug laws banning the manufacture and distribution of marijuana allow no exceptions, even for seriously ill patients who need the drug to survive.

Ruling 8-0, the court rejected the claims of an Oakland, Calif., cannabis cooperative that it should be allowed to provide marijuana to patients with a "medical necessity."

The court said that when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, it declined to create an exception for the medical use of marijuana and left no room for the courts to do so in its place.

"The statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. "Indeed, for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has `no currently accepted medical use' at all," he added, quoting from the law.

Although the court's decision was limited to the manufacture and distribution of marijuana, it also appeared to rule out the possibility of a medical exception that would allow patients to legally use the drug. In a footnote, Thomas wrote that there was no distinction between the two situations and that a medical necessity defense would be unavailable in either case.

Three justices - John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - questioned that conclusion. They said that the court had been asked to rule only on the manufacture and distribution of marijuana and that it was premature to extend its ruling to cases involving the use of marijuana.

But four of the court's nine justices agreed with Thomas, meaning that his position will likely prevail in the future. Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not take part in the case because his brother, a federal judge in San Francisco, handled the case in its early stages.

The court's decision came as a blow to advocates of medical marijuana. They maintain that marijuana is indispensable for many patients with AIDS and cancer because it relieves nausea and stimulates hunger, allowing them to maintain their strength. They also say it is useful in the treatment of glaucoma and neuromuscular disorders.

In recent years, those claims have gained widespread attention. Eight states have passed measures allowing patients with certain conditions to smoke marijuana under a doctor's supervision. Several other states, including Maryland, have begun to consider the matter.

The court's ruling does not directly affect the state measures. But it does mean that even if state governments choose not to prosecute the use of medical marijuana, the federal government is free to do so. The ruling also could discourage additional states from legalizing the medical use of marijuana.

Still, lawyers for the Oakland cooperative said they were not wholly disheartened. For one thing, they noted, the federal government does not usually prosecute individual cases of marijuana use. So as long as a state endorses the medical use of marijuana, most patients still will be able to smoke it without risk of arrest.

They also said they are planning other challenges to the federal drug laws, including a claim that by denying seriously ill patients the right to smoke marijuana the laws violate the Constitution's guarantee of due process.

There were these other developments at the court yesterday:

Lawyers for Terry L. Nichols asked the court to review his conviction on charges stemming from the Oklahoma City bombing in light of the FBI's failure to turn over thousands of pages of documents from its investigation.

Nichols was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after he was found guilty of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building, which killed 168 people. He appealed his conviction on the grounds that federal prosecutors withheld evidence from defense attorneys, but lower courts rejected that claim. The Supreme Court also refused earlier this year to overturn his conviction.

But last week, the FBI acknowledged that it failed to turn over 3,135 pages of documents to lawyers for Nichols and Timothy J. McVeigh, whose execution date tomorrow for the bombing was postponed when the documents surfaced. As a result, Nichols' lawyers have asked the court to reconsider its earlier decision not to review his conviction.

The justices agreed to decide whether a defendant who consents to searches of his home as a condition of probation can keep police from using evidence seized during those searches to prosecute him for new crimes.

The case involves a California man who was convicted on drug charges in 1998 and put on probation. As part of his probation, he signed an agreement allowing police to search his home, car or property without a warrant at any time and for any reason.

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