Supreme Court to hear women's medical-marijuana case

November 22, 2004

Howard Mintz, The Mercury News

(KRT) - In the dimly lit living room of her home in the Oakland, Calif., hills, Angel Raich lights up a pipe stuffed with marijuana. For this frail mother of two teenagers, the ritual isn't some secret drug habit - it is a recommendation by a doctor to help with a variety of painful ailments, including a brain tumor.

Although Raich smokes nine pounds of marijuana each year, California law enforcement officials consider her a law-abiding citizen. California voters eight years ago legalized medicinal marijuana for patients like Raich.

But to the federal government, Raich is a criminal.

Now, she and Diane Monson, a Butte County, Calif., woman who also smokes marijuana at the recommendation of her doctor, are the latest legal warriors in the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the federal government and states such as California that endorse the use of cannabis for the sick and dying.

For the second time in three years, that collision has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Monday hears arguments in their challenge to the Bush administration's efforts to crack down on medicinal marijuana. The stakes are high for medical marijuana advocates: another loss in the Supreme Court would likely slam the door for patients and those who grow pot for them, barring a shift in Congress' attitude about legalizing marijuana.

Anti-drug groups, siding with Congress and the Bush administration, have questioned whether the risks of smoking marijuana outweigh any medicinal value.

Even a win for Raich and Monson may provide only limited rights to medical marijuana patients, but they would be satisfied with a ruling that offers some guarantee they won't be arrested or raided by federal drug agents.

'Going to the Supreme Court makes it a final decision on whether I get to live or die,' says Raich, whose husband, Robert, is one of the lead attorneys in the case. 'I'm not trying to legalize marijuana. I'm simply trying to stay alive.'

Monson's cannabis garden was raided by drug agents in August 2002. As agents chopped down and hauled away her marijuana plants, Monson read them Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized marijuana for specific medical purposes.

'I'm very frustrated my government would make me into a criminal on this one issue,' said Monson, who owns a business in Oroville, Calif., and uses pot to treat a degenerative back condition.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers declined comment on the case. But in court briefs, the government has stuck to the position it has taken since California and other states began enacting medical marijuana laws - that federal drug laws trump state powers and continue to forbid the possession, use or sale of pot.

And legal experts say Raich and Monson have a tough fight in the Supreme Court. In 2001, the court unanimously rejected an Oakland, Calif., cannabis club's argument that there is a 'medical necessity' exception to federal drug laws. But the justices left unresolved other issues now in play in the Raich case.

'Even if Raich wins, it could be a very narrow victory,' says Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who argued the Oakland pot club case. 'But if we can just keep the door open a crack, that's got to be our strategy.'

The case comes at a crucial point. Eleven states have passed laws that in some way permit the practice, and polls in most states, including a recent one in Texas, show support for legalizing medical cannabis, which is used by patients with medical problems ranging from glaucoma to AIDS and cancer.

The Raich case is the first test of the Bush administration's more aggressive approach toward patients and pot providers in California and elsewhere. During the Clinton administration, federal law enforcement officials used civil lawsuits to target distributors, but largely left individual patients alone.

But under outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft, federal agents have raided and arrested medical marijuana patients and their pot providers, including a raid on a Santa Cruz, Calif., cooperative in 2002.

Raich and Monson sued to prevent the government from being able to raid or arrest them. But when the justices consider Raich and Monson's arguments, they will not be deciding the specific merits of medicinal marijuana laws. Instead, the case turns on old-fashioned principles of states' rights and the scope of federal powers to regulate commerce, the legal link to the enforcement of many federal laws.

The court in recent years has been fiercely divided on the issue of states' rights vs. federal power, often splitting 5-4 in cases that hinge on the question. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is being treated for thyroid cancer, has been a deciding vote in favor of states' rights, but his participation in the upcoming arguments is in doubt.

A federal appeals court sided with Raich and Monson last year, concluding that Congress does not have the authority to regulate medical marijuana possession as long as the activity doesn't cross state lines.

Even if medical pot advocates win in the Supreme Court, a ruling would only allow authorized patients to possess marijuana for personal use or caregivers to grow and provide the weed as long as no money changes hands. Federal drug laws would continue to prevent broader methods of providing medical marijuana to patients.

But the case has ramifications for a host of other pending cases, including possibly nullifying an injunction that bars federal agents from raiding the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz.

Anti-drug groups argue that medical marijuana advocates just want a backdoor way to legalize the addictive drug for recreational use, but Raich and Monson chafe at that suggestion.

Monson, 47, describes how her husband turned to medical marijuana last year, before succumbing to pancreatic cancer even as her case wound through the courts.

The 38-year-old Raich has been fighting the federal government since Proposition 215 was adopted, first serving as what she calls a 'spokespatient' for the Oakland Buyers Cannabis Club and now as the point person in a lawsuit that has reached the nation's high court. Once confined to a wheelchair, Raich says marijuana has enabled her to regain mobility and the ability to eat enough to stay alive.

In the morning, with the cannabis out of her system, Raich has trouble pulling herself out of bed. She smokes about every two hours, getting her marijuana from 'John Does' who grow it for her and who are also part of the court case. She insists she doesn't get high from marijuana - just well.

'Believe me, if I could take a pill, I would,' Raich says. 'If I stop using cannabis, we know what would happen. I would die.'



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