Feds should butt out on state marijuana decisions

June 15, 2005

Andy Ko (Guest Columnist), Seattle Times

The United States Supreme Court missed a chance last week to recognize that states can extend greater personal rights to their citizens than what the federal government protects. Had it done so, the high court also could have straightened out a conflict between state and federal laws governing medical use of marijuana.

But its decision in Gonzales v. Raich did neither. Now it is up to the people and our elected members of Congress.

Washington, California, Oregon and eight other states have adopted laws that allow doctors to advise certain seriously ill people to use marijuana to ease their suffering without threat of state prosecution. The Raich decision does not affect these state laws. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling does, however, uphold the authority of the federal government to arrest, prosecute and imprison medical-marijuana patients, even in states that authorize medical use of marijuana.

Washington's Medical Use of Marijuana Act was passed as Initiative 692 by nearly 60 percent of our state's voters in 1998 to protect people who use marijuana to alleviate suffering caused by cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other dire illnesses.

The initiative clearly stated the intention of the citizens who adopted it: 'The people find that humanitarian compassion necessitates that the decision to authorize the medical use of marijuana by patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses is a personal, individual decision, based upon their physician's professional medical judgment and discretion.'

Washington's voters chose to protect from state prison their seriously ill friends, neighbors and family members who use marijuana to relieve their suffering. Patients and their doctors, not police and prosecutors, were to make treatment decisions.

If a state chooses to do so, it should be able to protect from prosecution people like Angel Raich of Oakland, Calif., who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor as well as other painful conditions. Her doctor warned the trial court that she is likely to die if she is unable to use medical marijuana.

While the Supreme Court's decision does not require the federal government to go after medical marijuana users in states that approve of its use, the ruling certainly gives it a green light to do so.

Because the ruling does not affect state law, Washington's police, sheriffs and prosecutors should continue to honor the decision of the state's voters in passing I-692. Unfortunately, some local Washington law-enforcement agencies have attempted to circumvent state law by threatening to 'refer' medical-marijuana patients and caregivers to federal authorities for prosecution. And now federal prosecutors may feel freer to pursue those cases.

The court's ruling should lead the public to demand that Congress take action to protect patients and their doctors in making treatment decisions. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in Raich, recognized that this is a question of political will. '[P]erhaps even more important than ... legal avenues is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress.'

Congress will continue to consider the 'States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act' (HR 2087), which would put an end to federal prosecutions in states that choose to permit medical-marijuana treatment. A recent CNN/Time poll reported that 80 percent of Americans favor giving patients access to medical marijuana. With the Supreme Court having its say — and with increasing numbers of states passing medical-marijuana laws — let's hope Congress will listen.

Andy Ko is director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's drug policy reform project.

Be the first to Comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.