MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama, which has some of the nation's toughest drug laws, has become an unlikely ally of California on medical marijuana use.
In a legal brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments Monday on California's medical marijuana law, Alabama Attorney General Troy King said states, not the federal government, should have the right to decide drug-control policies.
"I could not disagree more with the public policy that underlies the California law. I think it's flawed. I think it's bad public policy," King said in an interview. "But if somebody can go in and tell California you can't regulate drugs the way you want to regulate them in California, the next step is they could come to Alabama and tell us we can't do it."
Alabama is tough on marijuana use. Between 1995 and 2002, the state averaged nearly 9,500 arrests per year for marijuana possession, according to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center. A person convicted three times of possessing marijuana in the state can end up serving as much as life in prison.
But the state's attorney general's office has become a defender of states' rights when pertinent cases go before the Supreme Court. Alabama raised similar states' rights issues in October when the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether states should be able execute killers who are 16 and 17 years old.
King's brief in support of California was also signed by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi -- two states also known for tough drug laws.
The issue before the Supreme Court is whether a California law that allows citizens to grow and possess marijuana for medical reasons should be struck down. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law last year, but the Bush administration appealed.
The administration has argued that allowing medical marijuana in California would undermine federal drug control programs, and that marijuana grown for medical use could end up on the illegal market and cross state lines.
King disagrees. His brief said the medical marijuana is grown and consumed within California, and "is not economic or commercial in any meaningful sense."
If things had gone differently 25 years ago, Alabama might have had the medical marijuana case before the Supreme Court rather than California.
In 1979, when medical marijuana was first being discussed nationally, the Alabama Legislature passed a law allowing a marijuana research program for chemotherapy and glaucoma patients to be supervised by the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.
Even though the experimental program did not prove successful, the Legislature has never repealed the law allowing it.