Medicinal use of marijuana dealt setback

Supreme Court upholds federal prosecutions

Medical merits not considered

June 07, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal agents can prosecute individuals who use marijuana to ease medical problems, even in the handful of states where voters or lawmakers have carved out an exception in local drug laws.

Without judging the possible medical merits, the court in a 6-3 ruling rejected the claims of two seriously ill California women who said federal authorities should be barred from enforcing U.S. drug laws in cases where marijuana is used solely for medical reasons and allowed under state law.

"This case is made difficult by [the women's] strong arguments that they will suffer irreparable harm," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. But he called the 35-year-old Controlled Substance Act, which outlaws marijuana and other drugs, "a valid exercise of federal power, even as applied to the troubling facts of this case."

The decision was a defeat to the unlikeliest of allies - advocates who support looser marijuana laws and conservatives who oppose federal meddling in states' rights.

For medical marijuana users, the growers who supply their drug and the doctors who prescribe it, the decision could have a chilling effect. The court did not overturn laws in California and 10 other states that allow medical use of marijuana but made it clear that local statutes cannot prevent federal prosecution.

"I would like to be able to follow the law, and because the law is unjust, I am going to continue this fight," said Angel Raich, one of the California women who brought the case against the government. Raich, 39, who smokes marijuana every two hours to control pain from a number of ailments, including an inoperable brain tumor, said she was using marijuana yesterday morning when she learned about the ruling.

Blow to states' rights

More broadly, some conservatives viewed the decision as a blow to states' rights and a personal setback for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who in recent years has led the court's repeated challenges to Washington's centralized authority by striking down other congressional acts it viewed as intruding on what should be the realm of state governments.

Rehnquist, who was undergoing cancer treatments when the case was argued in November, was in the minority yesterday with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. They called the majority opinion "overreaching [that] stifles an express choice by some states."

Mark Moller, a senior fellow with the conservative Cato Institute, said that even as the ruling slowed the Rehnquist-led federalism revolution, it was unlikely to end tensions between local and federal authorities over drug prosecutions.

U.S. agents typically pursue only large-scale marijuana cases, leaving smaller possession cases under the jurisdiction of state and local laws. Steve Fox, government relations director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said one concern is that the Justice Department will now police medical marijuana users more aggressively.

"It's truly a concern," Fox said yesterday. "The Bush administration may feel that it needs to show California who's boss and take some kind of action."

In Oregon, where about 10,000 patients are registered in the state's 6-year-old medical marijuana program, officials stopped issuing new medical cards yesterday while they sought legal guidance on how the decision could affect state law. Current members of the program were told they could withdraw.

"We need to proceed cautiously until we understand the ramifications of this ruling," said Oregon's public health officer, Dr. Grant Higginson.

Law enforcement officials did not signal their intentions yesterday, though federal authorities have been willing to pursue medical marijuana cases. Raich and Diane Monson brought their lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Asa Hutchinson, then-head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in 2002 after a strange, three-hour standoff between federal agents and local authorities at Monson's home in Butte County, Calif.

It ended without criminal charges, but with DEA agents cutting down the six marijuana plants growing on Monson's property - over the objections of the local district attorney. Monson, who suffers from chronic back pain, stood nearby, reading aloud the text of California's so-called Compassionate Use Act.

Federal reaction

Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki said yesterday that the agency was pleased that the court had upheld federal drug laws. The head of President Bush's drug policy office welcomed the ruling and said there is no scientific proof that "smoking a crude plant is safe or effective" medicine.

"Smoking illegal drugs may make some people `feel better,' however, civilized societies and modern-day medical practices differentiate between inebriation and the safe, supervised delivery of proven medicine by legitimate doctors," said National Drug Control Policy Director John Walters in a statement. He said the court's decision "marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."

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