U.S. Supreme Court rejects Prop. 215 challenge

May 17, 2009

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle

California's medical marijuana law survived its most serious legal challenge today as the U.S. Supreme Court denied appeals by two counties that argued they were being forced to condone violations of federal drug laws.

The justices, without comment, denied a hearing to officials from San Diego and San Bernardino counties who challenged Proposition 215, an initiative approved by state voters in 1996 that became a model for laws in 12 other states. It allows patients to use marijuana for medical conditions with their doctor's recommendation.

The counties specifically objected to legislation requiring them to issue identification cards that protect holders from arrest by state or local police for possessing small amounts of marijuana for medical use.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government can enforce its laws against marijuana to prosecute users and suppliers of the drug in California and the other 12 states. The Obama administration has said it will target only traffickers who violate state as well as federal laws, although it has not stopped U.S. attorneys from raiding dispensaries that operate with local government approval.

Prop. 215 remains in effect despite federal enforcement efforts that began as soon as it passed. In the counties' case, the Supreme Court left intact a state ruling last year that said California remains free to decide whether to punish drug users under its own laws.

"The purpose of the (federal law) is to combat recreational drug use, not to regulate a state's medical practices," the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego said in the July 31 decision.

In seeking Supreme Court review, San Diego and San Bernardino counties argued that the federal drug law overrides Prop. 215 and that they should not be required to issue identification cards allowing conduct that violates federal law.

Medical marijuana advocates were relieved by today's order.

"This was the most threatening case to state medical marijuana laws, the only one that tried to invalidate state laws," said attorney Graham Boyd of the American Civil Liberties Union, which defended the California law in the appeals court.

"No longer will local officials be able to hide behind federal law and resist upholding California's medical marijuana law," said Joe Elford, lawyer for Americans for Safe Access, which also took part in the case. He said the decision would strengthen his organization's case against the two counties and eight others that have refused to issue the identification cards.

The cases are San Diego County vs. San Diego NORML, 08-887, and San Bernardino County vs. California, 08-897.



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