Medical marijuana users go to Supreme Court

November 25, 2004

Claire Cooper, Sacramento Bee

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will hear the case that offers medical marijuana patients their best hope of getting around the federal government's strict laws against pot.

A year ago the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, two desperately ill Northern California women, and the federal government has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Angel McClary Raich, 39, calls marijuana "my miracle." She vows that the government "won't take it away from me." She suffers from multiple ailments that don't respond to conventional therapies, including wasting syndrome and an inoperable brain tumor.

The other plaintiff, Diane Monson, 47, is prone to excruciating back spasms and, like Raich, did poorly on conventional drugs.

The 9th Circuit said federal authorities lack the power to regulate the noncommercial growing, possession and use of pot for personal medical purposes if the activity occurs wholly within a state that permits it. California has done so since 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. The law permits patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana and also covers their caregivers. A more recent state law sets limits on pot amounts and penalties for abusers.

Monson grows her pot in her home garden, generating each crop from seeds produced by the previous crop. Raich gets her pot free from two Oakland growers, who use only California plants, soil, water and nutrients.

A victory for the women would reverberate. Twenty-six states have acknowledged medicinal marijuana in some way, if only by establishing research programs or providing reduced penalties for users, according to a brief filed by several medical associations. Almost half of those states view marijuana as a legitimate medicine, despite the federal government's position that it "has no accepted medicinal use." Pending the Supreme Court decision which is expected by early summer, several judges already have placed federal cases involving medical marijuana on hold and have ordered some convicted defendants released from prison.

Meanwhile, Raich and Monson are protected by a preliminary injunction that bars federal authorities from interfering with them or their pot supplies.

Raich says marijuana may have come into her life in answer to her daughter's prayer.

Eight years ago, the child would attack with her fists as Raich sat paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to explain why she could no longer be the active, athletic mother her daughter and son had known. Doctors said she would never walk again or live without pain. She told the girl to pray for an answer.

She says she was offended the first time a nurse suggested marijuana, after she attempted suicide in 1997. She had tried it as a teenager but never, she says, "as a mother." But moved by her daughter's distress, she did research, talked to her doctor and then had a family member buy street pot for her.

Now she eats, drinks or inhales marijuana every two hours. She massages its oil on her skin for spasms and hives. One strain eases her pain, another controls seizures, a third helps with eating and a fourth checks nausea.

In 1998, she joined the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, where she says "the better quality made all the difference."

But with federal agents raiding and closing marijuana cooperatives around California, Raich and her husband, Robert Raich, the Oakland cooperative's longtime lawyer, began setting up a case to test that question.

They recruited Monson as a co-plaintiff after a standoff in her garden put her in the news in 2002.

Butte County sheriff's agents, at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, flew over Monson's 160-acre spread and spotted her green garden high in the brown hills above Marysville.

The DEA recently had busted a large marijuana garden 30 to 40 miles away on rental property owned by Monson and her husband, Michael Pierce, a landscaper and county water commissioner until his recent death. The sheriff's agents were concerned about a possible tie-in, says Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey.

Accompanied by DEA agents, they returned to the Monson-Pierce spread with a search warrant. But the only marijuana they found among the shrubs, herbs and flowers was the six plants permitted to medical patients under Butte County guidelines.

A three-hour standoff followed, with the county agents wanting to leave Monson and her plants alone and the federal agents insisting on tearing up the pot. As Monson read aloud the entire text of Proposition 215, the county agents alerted Ramsey, who phoned an appeal to the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento.

The DEA wouldn't budge, though. The federal agents removed the plants. No charges were filed.

Monson uses marijuana six to eight times a day, usually by inhaling its vapor. She credits it with a "massive improvement in my level of pain." Dr. John Rose, her physician for the past 25 years, says in a court declaration that marijuana is the only therapy that relieves her spasms.

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