Medicinal Pot Users Can Be Prosecuted, Court Says

June 05, 2005

Gina Holland, Associated Press

People who smoke marijuana because their doctors recommend it to ease pain can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, overriding medical marijuana statutes in 10 states. The court's 6-3 decision was filled with sympathy for two seriously ill California women who brought the case, but the majority agreed that federal agents may arrest even sick people who use the drug as well as the people who grow pot for them.

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 as interstate commerce.

The Bush administration has taken a hard stand against state medical marijuana laws, but it was unclear how it would respond to the new prosecutorial power.  Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki would not say whether prosecutors would pursue cases against individual users.

In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor 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.'

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.  She says she smokes marijuana every few hours.

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.

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. 

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