The battle over marijuana

October 20, 2004

Sara Taylor, UCLA Daily Bruin

A case that began in the summer of 2002 with the seizure and destruction of six marijuana plants has exploded into one that will have nationwide implications for patients using cannabis for medicinal purposes.
The Supreme Court will rule on the federal government's legal ability to regulate the growth and use of marijuana for personal medical purposes within this academic year.

The decision will not effect either state or federal laws regulating recreational marijuana use.

The case will be heard on Nov. 29 and the decision is scheduled to be released some time this Spring.

The Court will consider the constitutionality of the case and decide how far the federal government can regulate intrastate marijuana use.

But the case is also part of a larger discussion about the merits and ethics of using marijuana for purported medical benefits.

Many people suffering from various types of severe and chronic conditions, such as cancer and chronic pain, use cannabis for pain relief.

Many medical professionals, including UCLA researchers and drug enforcement agents, however, emphasize the destructive effects marijuana may have on health and the quality of life over any possible pain relief it may provide.

The women behind the case

Angel Raich and Diane Monson, two women who use marijuana to treat severe medical conditions, will speak to the Supreme Court on behalf of all people in the U.S. who use the drug for medicinal purposes. Diane Monson, whose marijuana plants were seized in the summer of 2002, uses cannabis to treat a severe back condition from which she has suffered since 1989.

'I use medical cannabis with the recommendation of my physicians for the treatment of my severe chronic back pain and spasms. ... Without cannabis, these spasms would be torturous and unbearable, no matter whatever other medications were available,' Monson wrote in her declaration to the 9th Circuit of Appeals in October 2002.

Raich, too, uses cannabis to treat medical conditions that she said have been unaffected by all other medications she has tried.

At only 98 pounds, Raich suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, seizure disorder, life-threatening wasting syndrome and other serious conditions. She said cannabis is the only medication that has successfully allowed her to lead a somewhat normal and active life without intolerable side effects.

'I would be dead without it. I would literally be dead without it, without cannabis,' Raich said.

'The case is really about one thing and one thing only. It really is about whether the federal government has the right to tell someone when they can live and when they can die,' she said.

The physical effects of marijuana use

Raich, Monson and others extol the benefits of marijuana to treat serious medical conditions, but there are also those who emphasize the dangers of the drug, both as a medical risk that can cause lung disease and harm the immune system, as well as a gateway drug.

Richard Meyer, special agent and public information officer for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he believes the nature of cannabis itself, as a drug that is smoked, is problematic, even if there is a potential therapeutic affect.

'There is no medicine that is smoke. Smoking is bad for your health. Period,' he said.

In a study on the effects of marijuana, Dr. Michael Roth and Dr. Donald Tashkin of the UCLA Medical Center found evidence supporting Meyer's assertion.

'What we found is that people who smoke marijuana have a very significant inflammation and injury to their breathing passages that is similar to people who smoke one to two packs of cigarettes a day,' Roth said.

Roth and his colleagues also found that marijuana has adverse effects on the immune system.

'The macrophages from marijuana smokers were very suppressed in their ability to take up bacteria and in their ability to kill the bacteria,' Roth said, explaining that these cells find and destroy foreign bodies and are vital to the immune response.

Roth and his colleagues have also been investigating the effect marijuana may have on contracting HIV and AIDS, he said. Studies conducted on mice 'raise concerns about the impact on the immune system and susceptibility to infections such as HIV and AIDS.'

Marijuana is also condemned as being a drug that leads to the use of other, more dangerous substances, such as heroin and cocaine.

'It's a hallucinogenic. It is addictive. That's true,' Meyer said, adding that there is 'no accepted use in the United States' and that its medical benefits are 'an imagination.'

But Raich, who has used marijuana for several years and sees it as the only reason she is currently able to function, would point to her own experience to contradict Meyer's allegation that the drug has no true medical benefits.

The legal battle

The Supreme Court case is by no means the beginning of Raich and Monson's legal struggle – nor will the ruling, whatever it might be, signal the end.

The case was brought to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2002 when Raich and Monson sued Attorney General John Ashcroft after Monson's marijuana plants were seized by federal agents, said William Dolphin, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for the legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Last December, the 9th Circuit granted an injunction to the two women on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to regulate the growth and use of marijuana for personal medicinal purposes. The injunction allows Raich and Monson to keep their supply of marijuana until they take their case to trial.

The ruling was based on the clause in the Constitution which states that Congress only has power to regulate interstate commerce, said Randy Barnett, who argued the case before the 9th Circuit.

Raich and Monson's activities are strictly intrastate and therefore should not fall under federal jurisdiction, Barnett added.

Following the ruling, Ashcroft appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 9th Circuit made a legal mistake in the ruling.

The December ruling in favor of Raich and Monson had a significant effect for patients using marijuana for medical conditions.

'The implications are that the federal Controlled Substance Act doesn't reach cannabis that is grown for your own use ... for medical purposes,' Barnett said. 'If the government can't touch it and the states make it legal, that's very, very big.'

The legal ramifications

The Supreme Court's decision could have a substantial effect on the use of medical marijuana in the United States.

As the situation currently stands, there is a conflict between state and federal laws.

The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 states it is legal for patients in California to use marijuana at the recommendation of a physician and with certain regulations.

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Vermont currently have similar laws, and other states are considering the issue.

But federal law, which supercedes state law, considers marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug that cannot be used, even for personal medical uses, Meyer said. The Supreme Court's ruling could change this situation.

'If they affirm the 9th Circuit's ruling, that makes it law in the country, Dolphin said. 'It would mean that they worked out a harmonization of the two laws.'

But the bottom line is that federal laws state marijuana is illegal, whether for recreational or purported medical uses, Meyer said, adding that the Drug Enforcement Administration does not target people who use marijuana for personal medical use.

If the Supreme Court decides to uphold the current laws and overturn the 9th Circuit's decision, the situation will remain as it currently is, with state and federal laws conflicting, Dolphin said.

'If the Supreme Court overturns the ruling ... then we're just where we were before: states say it's legal, and the federal government says it isn't,' Dolphin added.

In either case, all state laws will remain in effect.

But even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Raich and Monson and upholds the 9th Circuit's decision, the battle will still not be over for these two women.

The case is currently only at the preliminary injunction stage – the 9th Circuit ruled to prevent the enforcement of the Controlled Substance Act on Raich and Monson and allow them to keep their supply of cannabis until they are able to have a trial, Barnett said.

The current dispute is of the legality of this decision, Barnett added, explaining that the federal government appealed the 9th Circuit's decision on the grounds that they had made a legal mistake in their judgment.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the attorney general, then Raich and Monson will be back to square one, but if the Supreme Court upholds the 9th Circuit's ruling, then the two women will proceed to court to seek a permanent injunction that will allow them to continue to use cannabis to treat their conditions without federal intervention, Barnett said.

'I've been preparing myself; if it takes every last breath in my body to protect myself and others who need to use medical cannabis,' Raich said. 'I hope that they just allow me to live.'

Raich added she does not enjoy using marijuana as a medication, but it is the only way she is able to continue to live and care for her two teenage children.

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