High Court Flops On Medicinal Pot

June 06, 2005

EDITORIAL, Times Herald-Record (NY)

The justices should have left the issue where it belongs, with individual states. The U.S.  Supreme Court ruling giving federal authorities the right to prosecute people whose states allow their use of marijuana for medical purposes is disappointing on several fronts.

First and foremost, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in her dissent, the federal government ought not be rooting around in people's lives to the point where it is 'a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one's own home for one's own medicinal use.'

O'Connor, along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, properly saw this as an issue that belonged with individual states.  'The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens,' O'Connor noted.

In this case, a California law allowing medicinal use of marijuana was challenged by the Bush administration, which apparently has a visceral need to go out and arrest terminal cancer and AIDS patients whose doctors write them prescriptions for marijuana to ease their pain.  Next thing you know, the president will be putting these people on the drug-lords list.  That the Supreme Court gave credence to this cold-hearted, shortsighted policy is truly disappointing.

And no, it doesn't help to point out, as Justice John Paul Stevens did in writing the 6-3 majority decision, that Congress could always change the law to permit medical use of marijuana.

Of course it can.  It always could, but that still doesn't mean it should even be bothering with this issue.  There's no interstate commerce to speak of and virtually all the prosecutions on marijuana cases are handled by local and state officials.  That's not going to change even with this ruling, and one assumes all 10 states that allow medicinal marijuana use will not change their laws because of it.

The court ruling says federal officials have the right under the Constitution to arrest seriously ill people whose use of marijuana makes their lives more livable.  But why? One has to wonder about any Justice Department, faced with the life-and-death responsibility of defending the country against terrorism ( not to mention all manner of serious crimes ), that would devote any kind of manpower to raiding private homes for a handful of pot plants.  These are not people who drive under the influence or sell marijuana to children.  These are MS and spinal cord injury patients looking for a little relief.

There is one interesting, even encouraging, aspect to this otherwise lamentable ruling: Critics of both liberal and conservative leaning who regularly complain about activist judges fitting their rulings to suit their political agendas have nowhere to go on this one.

The six-member majority included all the liberal/moderate justices on the court, who would presumably favor the medicinal use of marijuana as a cultural issue.  The three dissenters are conservatives ( although O'Connor is a frequent swing vote ), who, were they to respond in an activist judicial manner, would presumably have voted to let the feds kick down the doors.

This means independent thought is still possible on the highest court, although it may still result in wrongheaded rulings.

States ( including New York ) should continue to look at allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes because it's sensible and compassionate.  And Congress needs to take Justice Stevens' hint and scrap this intrusive federal law. 

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