Supreme Court justices to decide medical marijuana dispute

June 28, 2004

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union Tribune

Seven months ago, a federal appeals court ruled that patients could smoke marijuana with their doctor's recommendation in states that allow for medical use of the drug. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would reconsider that decision. A ruling is not expected until next year, but whatever the decision, the outcome will likely have ramifications from coast to coast. 'This provides the (opening) for patients throughout the country to use their medicine free from interference from the federal government,' Robert Raich said.

Raich's wife, Angel, is one of two seriously ill Northern California women who sued the federal government in 2002 for the legal right to grow and smoke marijuana without fear of prosecution.

Late last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Angel Raich and Diane Monson of Butte County, saying the federal government can't prosecute patients who use marijuana in states that have adopted medical marijuana laws.

Among others things, two of the three judges declared, those patients who grow their own medicine, and do not sell it or move it across state lines, are not violating the interstate commerce clause of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.

For years, federal agents and prosecutors relied on that portion of the drug law to combat trafficking.

The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit ruling this year. There was no comment yesterday from the Justice Department, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., said. Similarly, no one from the Drug Enforcement Administration returned calls for comment yesterday.

Supporters of medical marijuana, meanwhile, crossed their fingers that the gains they have made in recent years would not be reversed once the Supreme Court hears the case this coming winter.

'We have very mixed emotions about it, but I guess it's something that has to move forward,' said Claudia Little, a retired nurse from Point Loma who smokes marijuana to reduce the chronic pain she gets from osteoarthritis.

'The way things are right now, we're in a pretty good spot,' she said. 'But it has to be decided one way or another.'

Jerry Meier, chairman of San Diego's medical marijuana task force, which helped write the city's guidelines under the state's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, said he hopes the Supreme Court uses this case to make a definitive ruling on the issue.

Twice in recent years, the high court has considered the medical use of marijuana, but both of those opinions were limited to narrow legal issues.

'I wish it would just end and people could just go on about the business of treating their illnesses,' Meier said. 'This just keeps dragging on and on and on.'

The Supreme Court ruled in October that the federal government could not punish doctors who recommend marijuana to AIDS, cancer and other patients. Three years ago, however, the same court decided that medical necessity was not a legal defense for breaking drug laws.



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