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High court rejects defense of medical marijuana
McClatchy Newspapers


June 06, 2005

Washington - A medical prescription is not a ticket to legal marijuana in California, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday in a 6-3 ruling in which the justices nonetheless expressed sympathy for those whose illnesses have been uniquely alleviated by the popular street drug.

In an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court held that laws in California and 10 other states permitting marijuana cultivation, possession and use by persons with a doctor's prescription do not trump the federal government's authority under the Constitution to prosecute sick users on federal drug charges.

The justices said their decision was "made difficult" by the claims of the two California women who brought the appeal - Angel McClary Raich of Oakland and Diane Monson of Oroville. The women said they would suffer irreparable harm if their supply to legal marijuana dried up because of the ruling.

But they said the state exemption for medical marijuana was certain to add to the street supply of the drug.

"In contrast to most prescriptions for legal drugs, which limit dosage and duration of the usage, under California's law the doctor's permission to recommend marijuana is open-ended," the majority said.

The court's three dissenters complained that the ruling marked an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights and warned that it handed Congress broad powers to meddle in state issues.

Proponents of medical marijuana said they doubted the ruling would have much effect on marijuana prosecutions. The Justice Department, meanwhile, said it was pleased that the Supreme Court had reaffirmed the scope of the nation's drug laws, but did not elaborate.

John Walters, President Bush's director of national drug control policy, was more expansive, asserting that it would put an end to medical marijuana as a political issue.

"Smoking illegal drugs may make some people 'feel better,' " he said. "However, civilized societies and modern day medical practices differentiate between inebriation and the safe, supervised delivery of proven medicine by legitimate doctors."

Even in the majority opinion, however, the high court suggested that the question of medically permissible marijuana belonged in the political arena.

Medical marijuana proponents can turn to administrative avenues to have it reclassified from a banned Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug restricted to medical use, the justices said.

"But perhaps even more important than these legal avenues is the democratic process in which the voices of voters allied with these (women) may one day be heard in the halls of Congress," it said.

Though a clear blow to medical pot proponents, the ruling appeared unlikely to have major practical consequence, at least not immediately.

Most marijuana cases are brought by the states, and there's nothing in the ruling compelling them to act any differently now. And instead of overturning California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act, it merely rejects one of the arguments that medical marijuana users are immunized from prosecution under the federal Controlled Substance Act.

"Legitimate medical marijuana patients in California must know that state and federal laws are no different today than they were yesterday," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Lockyer said, however, some local law enforcement agencies could be more aggressive against marijuana cases now.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said it saw no change in its enforcement priorities.

"Our mission remains the same - to disrupt and dismantle major traffickers," said DEA spokesman Bill Grant. "We've never targeted the sick and dying." But Grant said the agency was pleased the Supreme Court recognized the fact that marijuana is a dangerous drug.

Raich, who has a brain tumor and has credited marijuana with relieving her misery to the point that she no longer requires use of a wheelchair, said at a press conference Monday that she would be beating a path to Congress.

"We're not going away," said Raich. "Just because we did not win this battle does not mean that we will not win this war."

Monson, who has chronic back spasms, said she was "very disappointed" with the ruling. "I think it's just a blow to compassion everywhere," she said. "But I'm going to . . . continue to do what I think is right."

Raich and other medical marijuana supporters said they would be asking Congress to bar the Department of Justice from spending any money in 2006 to "interfere" with state marijuana laws.

Randy Barnett, who argued the case for the women before the high court, also said they will be returning to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decision was reversed by the Supreme Court Monday, on other remaining constitutional issues in the case.

Many had regarded the challenge before the justices as the strongest argument in favor of medical marijuana.

Raich obtains marijuana from caregivers who raise it for her. But Monson grows her own, and after Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided her home on Aug. 15, 2002, they destroyed her six plants even though county sheriff's deputies argued her use of the drug was legal under state law.

The women filed a lawsuit for an injunction barring federal drug agents from enforcing the federal drug laws against those who grow, possess or use medical marijuana.

Their claim wasn't that the Controlled Substances Act was legally flawed, but that the commerce clause of the Constitution prohibited it from being enforced against activities in which no money changed hands and that occurred entirely within the borders of a single state.

The high court said such a conclusion would undermine the ability of the federal government to apply uniform standards between states and for it to prevail in situations where there were conflicts with state laws.

Additionally, the majority said, growing a large quantity of marijuana for medical users was certain to have consequences on the illicit pot market, thus drawing the matter squarely within the framework of the Commerce Clause.

"The exemption for cultivation by patients and caregivers can only increase the supply of marijuana in the California market," the high court said.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas disagreed.

"Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana," wrote Thomas in a separate dissent.

"If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything - and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers," he said.

Thomas said there is no reason to believe that California is somehow out of control in its enforcement of marijuana laws because of what's grown for a relatively small and distinct group of registered medical marijuana users.

"But even assuming that states' controls allow some seepage of medical marijuana into the illicit drug market, there is a multibillion-dollar interstate market for marijuana," he said. "It is difficult to see how this vast market could be affected by diverted medical cannabis."

In her dissent, joined by Rehnquist who missed the oral arguments because of his own medical condition, O'Connor emphasized that the victor in the majority ruling was Congress, now with broadened powers to meddle in state affairs without restraint.

"Today's decision allows Congress to regulate intrastate activity without check," she said.


David Whitney reported from Washington, Claire Cooper from San Francisco.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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