Top U.S. Court: Medicinal 'Pot' Remains Illegal

June 06, 2005

Angela Stewart, Star-Ledger (NJ)

Even as New Jersey lawmakers ponder whether to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to their sickest patients, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal authorities still have the power to prosecute people who smoke pot on doctor's orders.

The 6-3 decision, based on the case of two seriously ill California women, is seen as a major blow to marijuana advocates, who say the drug -- although illegal -- has significant medical benefit for patients suffering everything from chronic pain to cancer and AIDS.

'We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling ... We simply want it to be available for patients who are suffering without it,' said Ken Wolski, CEO of The Coalition for Medicine Marijuana -- New Jersey. 

White House officials, by contrast, couldn't have been more pleased with the decision.

'Today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue,' said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House Drug Policy Office. 'Smoking marijuana makes people feel better. It doesn't mean it's medicine.'

Jim Miller of Toms River, whose wife, Cheryl, died two years ago today, would disagree. Miller said sympathizers who heard him describe his wife's battle against multiple sclerosis on a radio talk show in 1992 hid the drug in plastic baggies behind an A&P in town for him to retrieve. Later Miller started growing the drug in wooded areas in Ocean County 'where nobody would see me.' He then put the marijuana in salad dressing or made patties of 'green butter' that his wife would swallow like a pill.

'The law would have never stopped me from taking care of Cheryl and doing what's right,' he said. 'It helped her because her arms and legs would contract and it was hard to straighten them out. With the marijuana, she had little to no spasticity,' said Miller, who first read about marijuana's benefits in a medical journal.

The closely watched Supreme Court case, in which Justices Sandra O'Connor, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas dissented, was actually an appeal by the Bush administration in a case that it lost in late 2003. It revolved around two seriously ill California women, Angel Raich and Diane Monson, who had sued then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking for a court order to let them smoke, grow or obtain marijuana without fear of arrest.

A bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature in January (S2200) would authorize the state health department to issue registration cards to patients whose doctors certify that they need the drug. Registered patients or their caregivers could possess up to six plants or 1 ounce of marijuana without fear of prosecution.

'It's all about compassion and helping people in the worst conditions who are not responding to other types of medications,' said sponsor Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union), who is also the prosecutor for the city of Linden. 'Not for one second are we advocating the legalization of drugs for recreational use,' he added. 

'I can tell you the DEA will continue to enforce the federal law,' said Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Ten states, including California, have such laws, and a poll last year by AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for seniors, showed three-fourths of older Americans support marijuana for medical use.

'It's crystal clear that after this opinion, the United States has the authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act against anyone who possesses or distributes marijuana,' said John Jacobi, a professor of law at Seton Hall Law School in Newark. 'You can never be sure when the FBI would be outside your door.'

John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, said that even when it comes to debilitating conditions, smoking pot 'is not necessary.'

The head of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey agrees.

'The non-marijuana approaches to nausea, vomiting and pain have been more effective then marijuana,' said William Hait.

But sometimes the drugs just don't work, countered Donald McGrath of Robbinsville. The New Jersey father lost his 28-year-old son, Sean, to cancer two years ago. The drug was recommended by his doctors, said the father. 'It was the only thing that made him feel normal.'

The newly elected president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, Eileen Moynihan, said there is no question that marijuana can be abused. But the Woodbury rheumatologist said that for some patients, it may be their only effective treatment.

Moynihan said she has treated patients with Marinol, a derivative of marijuana, which successfully increased appetite, but did not address pain.

'There are many things about marijuana that have me concerned about its overall usage, but I would have to say that in certain circumstances, it might be the only thing you have for somebody,' she said.

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