Court strikes medical use of marijuana

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

However, the Supreme Court ruling does not stop California's law or similar ones in nine other states.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's elderly members have dealt with cancer, chronic back pain and other ailments. They've also lost spouses, children and friends to illness.

Against that backdrop the justices voted on Monday, with some apparent reservations, to let federal agents arrest people who use pot to ease their pain, even in states that have legalized medical marijuana.

The court's 6-3 decision was fused with sympathy for two seriously ill California women who brought the case.

Justice John Paul Stevens, an 85-year-old cancer survivor, said the court was not passing judgment on the potential medical benefits of marijuana, and he noted "the troubling facts" in the case. However, he said the Constitution allows federal regulation of homegrown marijuana.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose recent bout of thyroid cancer has stirred speculation that he will step down soon, opposed the decision. The 80-year-old has chronic back pain, and his wife died in 1991 of ovarian cancer.

He signed a dissent, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that said the court decision wrongly "extinguishes" state trials for medical marijuana.

The women who brought the case expressed defiance.

"I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. I don't really have a choice but to, because if I stop using cannabis, I would die," said Angel Raich of Oakland, Calif., who suffers from ailments including scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea, fatigue and pain.

Diane Monson, an accountant who lives near Oroville, Calif., has degenerative spine disease and grows her own marijuana plants. "I'm going to have to be prepared to be arrested," she said.

The ruling does not strike down California's law, or similar ones in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state. However, it may hurt efforts to pass laws in other states because the federal government's prosecution authority trumps states' wishes.

John Walters, director of national drug control policy, defended the government's ban. "Science and research have not determined that smoking marijuana is safe or effective," he said.

California's law, passed by voters in 1996, allows people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation. Monson and Raich contend that traditional medicines do not provide the relief that marijuana does.

In her dissent, O'Connor, who like Rehnquist has had cancer, said the court's "overreaching stifles an express choice by some states, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently."

California has been the battleground state for medical marijuana. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in a California case that the federal government could prosecute distributors despite their claim that the activity was protected by medical necessity.

Two years later the justices rejected a Bush administration appeal that sought power to punish doctors for recommending the drug to sick patients. That case, too, was from California.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said Monday that "people shouldn't panic ... there aren't going to be many changes."

Local and state officers handle nearly all marijuana prosecutions and must still follow any state laws that protect patients.

"I think it would look bad if the federal government focused its prosecution authority on a sick person," said Daniel Abrahamson, with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Congress could be the next stop for the debate.

While there are other legal options for patients, Stevens wrote, "perhaps even more important than these legal avenues is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these [California women] may one day be heard in the halls of Congress." Stevens' only son died of cancer.

Even supporters say it is unlikely Congress would pass a law allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana.

O'Connor was joined in her dissent by two other states' rights advocates: Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas. O'Connor said that she would have opposed California's medical marijuana law if she were a voter or a legislator. But she said the court was overreaching to endorse "making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one's own home for one's own medicinal use."

Thomas said the ruling was so broad "the federal government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives and potluck suppers throughout the 50 states."

The case was hatched when Monson's backyard crop of six marijuana plants was seized by federal agents in 2002. She and Raich sued then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking for a court order letting them smoke, grow or obtain marijuana without fear of arrest, home raids or other intrusion by federal authorities.

They claimed protection under the Constitution, which says Congress may pass laws regulating a state's economic activity so long as it involves "interstate commerce" that crosses state borders.

The case is Gonzales v. Raich, 03-1454.

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