IT MAY NOT be surprising that a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court will let federal authorities go after people who use marijuana in states that allow it for medicinal purposes, but the decision is still a grave disappointment. The overriding legal consideration is that marijuana is banned under federal law and that trumps enlightened state efforts to carve out some sensible exceptions.
As Justice John Paul Stevens noted for the majority, despite the "troubling facts" of the case, the court followed settled law, and those who are unhappy with the decision can urge Congress to change it. Indeed, they should.
Marijuana is one of the substances banned under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, part of a comprehensive federal drug law that makes it unlawful to manufacture, distribute, dispense or possess any controlled substance except as authorized. That law, however, makes no allowance for medical use of marijuana.
In a classic conflict between federal and state authority, the law was challenged by two women from California who use locally grown marijuana as medication for serious illnesses under the recommendation and guidance of their physicians. Their marijuana use is sanctioned by California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, one of about a dozen similar state statutes. But after a visit to the home of one of the women, Diane Monson, in 2002, federal drug agents destroyed her six marijuana plants even though county law enforcement officers concluded that she was within her rights under state law.
The Supreme Court majority relied on long-standing precedent to support its reasoning that even a locally cultivated product that isn't sold on the open market falls under Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce if the product is part of a national market or part of a broad federal effort to control products such as illegal drugs.
The interesting lineup in the case saw Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent, supporting the role of states as "laboratories" and their rights to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens.
As a practical matter, some advocates of medical marijuana argue that the court's ruling might not have a huge impact since most enforcement of these cases comes from local authorities. But the fact remains that people who have come to rely on marijuana to relieve pain from serious illness, including cancer and AIDS, are now clearly subject to federal prosecution. The Bush administration, which pushed this case, seems to remain unconvinced of marijuana's medicinal properties.
But even Justice Stevens conceded that marijuana has valid therapeutic purposes, and he suggested at the end of the majority opinion that voters who support medical marijuana should use the democratic process to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress. As the House of Representatives considers a bill next week to halt raids on medical marijuana users, those voices should come through loud and clear.