Defying High Court, Patients Vow to Keep Using Marijuana

June 06, 2005

Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers

Sick patients who say they rely on marijuana to ease their symptoms vowed to continue using the drug, in defiance of a Supreme Court decision Monday that gives the federal government carte blanche to go after them. Angel Raich, the 39-year-old Oakland, Calif., woman at the center of the case decided by the Supreme Court, said she will not give up using marijuana to help boost her hunger and ease pain from a host of ailments, even though Monday's 6-3 ruling means she could face federal charges.

'If I was to stop using cannabis, it would be the end of my life,' said Raich, who says she relies on three ounces of the drug each week to keep her hungry so she can combat a life-threatening wasting syndrome.  'I just simply cannot hold onto my weight without cannabis.'

Raich, who also has an inoperable brain tumor and suffers from chronic pain, told reporters in a conference call she 'would like to be able to follow the law,' but, 'because the law is unjust, I am going to continue this fight.'

In 2002, Raich and another California woman, Diane Monson, sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft after Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local county sheriffs raided Monson's home and confiscated six of her cannabis plants.  It is illegal under federal law to grow, distribute or possess marijuana, but a California statute allows 'seriously ill' residents to cultivate and use marijuana for medical purposes, with the guidance and approval of their physicians.

Ten other states have similar laws on the books: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

But a six-member majority of the Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal anti-marijuana laws trump the state statutes.  The court found that Congress has authority under the Constitution's Commerce Clause to regulate even small quantities of cannabis cultivated within a state for medical purposes.  Such amounts could hit the illegal market across state lines, the court said.

'Regulation is squarely within Congress' commerce power because production of the commodity meant for home consumption .  .  .  has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity,' said Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority.

Joining Stevens in ruling against Raich were Justices Stephen G.  Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M.  Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and David H.  Souter.  Chief Justice William H.  Rehnquist dissented, along with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas.

The Supreme Court specifically did not consider an argument Raich and Monson made before lower courts: Enforcement of federal drug laws against their medical use of marijuana would trample their fundamental rights to life.  Lawyers for the pair said Monday they plan to take that argument back to the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In the meantime, state medical cannabis laws remain on the books, contended Steve Fox, a lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates liberalized marijuana policies.  But people who grow or use marijuana under the state laws - and the physicians who facilitate their access - now risk federal prosecution.

It was unclear Monday how vigorously the Department of Justice would enforce federal laws against marijuana in light of the ruling - and whether prosecutors would go after patients who have been using the drug.

But in a statement, White House Drug Czar John Walters dismissed claims that cannabis could be used safely for therapeutic purposes.

'To date, science and research have not determined that smoking a crude plant is safe or effective,' said Walters, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy.  'We have a responsibility as a civilized society to ensure that the medicine Americans receive from their doctors is effective, safe, and free from the pro-drug politics that are being promoted in America under the guise of medicine.'

Walters noted that a synthetic form of the main psychoactive component of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is legally available by prescription to treat nausea under the brand name Marinol.  Critics, including Raich, complain that the substance does not provide the same kind of relief as marijuana - and can cause side effects such as headaches.

The issue ultimately could be decided on Capitol Hill.  In the Supreme Court's majority opinion, Stevens noted that although they lost in court, Raich and other marijuana advocates can pursue 'the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress.'

A big battle on the issue is already looming.  Next week, Reps.  Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., will push a proposal to bar the Justice Department from spending federal dollars to go after medical marijuana use in states that allow it.

Their initiative - which will be offered as an amendment to a spending bill that funds the Department of Justice - is similar to proposals that failed by large margins in 2004 and 2003.  In both cases, the amendments fell roughly 60 votes shy of what supporters needed.

Advocates of more liberal drug laws are hoping the Supreme Court decision - and fears that the Bush administration, empowered by the ruling, will prosecute medical marijuana users - will drive more lawmakers to their side.

'At this point, we now have six members of the U.S.  Supreme Court who are in essence calling on Congress to change its laws,' said Robert Raich, Angel's husband and one of her lawyers.  'That's a pretty resounding invitation to Congress to listen to the voices of people like Angel to try and change the laws in their favor.'

Opponents of illegal drugs said the Supreme Court decision rightly would ensure people could not evade federal anti-drug laws by exploiting state medical marijuana statutes when they were not sick or when their illnesses could be treated with legal medicines.

Eric A.  Voth, a doctor and the chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy said the ruling 'upholds the long-established scientific fact that marijuana is not medicine and it reaffirms that medicine by popular vote is a dangerous process that bypasses the FDA, reduces consumer protections and jeopardizes sick patients.'

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