Medical Marijuana Dispute Gets U.S. Supreme Court Hearing

June 27, 2004

, Bloomberg

June 28 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court re-entered the debate over medical marijuana, agreeing to decide whether states can let seriously ill people use the drug to treat pain and other symptoms.

The court will hear the Bush administration's appeal of a lower court decision allowing two California women to use marijuana on their doctors' recommendation. The government says the federal Controlled Substances Act, which makes it a crime to possess, grow and sell marijuana, also bans non-commercial medical use of the substance.

California and seven other states allow medical use of marijuana recommended by a doctor. In a previous marijuana case in 2001, the Supreme Court said there was no ``medical necessity'' exception to the controlled-substance law. Today's case asks whether Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce allows a ban on medical use of locally grown marijuana.

The appeals court ruling ``seriously undermines Congress's comprehensive scheme for the regulation of dangerous drugs,'' Justice Department lawyers said in court papers filed in Washington. Under the decision ``persons operating intrastate could function essentially as unregulated and unsupervised drug manufacturers and pharmacies,'' government lawyers said.

The court will hear arguments in its term starting in October and rule by July 2005.

The federal government lists marijuana among the most strictly controlled drugs such as LSD and heroin. Advocates of medical use say marijuana can ease cancer patients' nausea from chemotherapy and that it helps treat glaucoma, stimulate AIDS patients' appetite and ease pain for multiple sclerosis sufferers.

Seven Other States

The other states that allow medical use of marijuana are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, government lawyers said in court papers.

Today's case was filed by California residents Angel McClary Raich and Diane Monson, whose doctors say all other medicines failed to treat their symptoms or caused intolerable side effects.

Raich, of Oakland, suffers from a number of conditions including an inoperable brain tumor, seizures and nausea. She uses marijuana grown free of charge by two caregivers who also joined the suit. Monson, of Oroville, who suffers from chronic back pain and muscle spasms caused by a spinal disease, grows her own marijuana.

After federal drug agents raided Monson's home in August 2002, Monson, Raich and the two unidentified caregivers filed suit seeking to stop federal officials from enforcing the controlled-substances law against them.

`Substantial Increase' in Activity

A judge ruled for the government. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in December and granted a preliminary order barring enforcement of the law against Raich, Monson and the two caregivers.

The court said they were likely to win their claim that the federal law didn't apply to them because their activities didn't appear to be linked to interstate commerce. The 9th Circuit returned the case to the judge for further proceedings.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, Justice Department lawyers said the ruling ``threatens a substantial increase in the level of prohibited drug activity'' in the nine western states within the 9th Circuit.

The government pointed to the Supreme Court's 2001 ruling that ordered the shutdown of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative in California for violating the federal law. Though that ruling said the law didn't allow a medical necessity defense, it left unresolved whether the law overstepped Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Lawyers for Raich, Monson and the two unidentified caregivers said the women used the drug for ``bona fide medical purposes'' and that Raich's doctor has said she might die without medical marijuana.

The case addresses ``the right to preserve one's life'' as well as ``the fundamental right to alleviate unnecessary pain and agony and protect bodily integrity,'' the lawyers said.

The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, 03-1454.



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