U.S. Supreme Court opens term

October 03, 2004

Pete Williams, NBC News

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, known for its rulings protecting states from the demands of the federal government, faces a provocative question this term: Will it stand up for a California law that permits using marijuana with a doctor's approval? (03-1454 Ashcroft v. Raich, scheduled for argument on Nov. 29.)

The state-federal clash over California's Compassionate Use Act, adopted in 1996, became dramatically clear in August 2002 at the rural home of Diane Monson, whose doctor recommended marijuana to relieve her severe back pain.

State and federal law enforcement officers raced to her house after spotting marijuana growing in her back yard. When she told them she cultivated the plants for medical use, the state sheriff's deputies backed down. But a federal drug agent insisted the plants be destroyed and chopped them down as Monson recited the text of the California law.

'He did, in fact, that hot August day, take my cannabis, take my rights and that's not OK,' she says, explaining why she sued the Justice Department.

Federal law bans marijuana possession, and Congress has never agreed that there is a legitimate medical use for it. But eight states — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have laws similar to California's. Supporters of the laws say tens of thousands of residents in those states use marijuana with a doctor's advice.

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