Supreme Court will consider federal interference with medical-marijuana laws

November 25, 2004

David Kravets, Associated Press

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that will determine whether patients in Oregon and 10 other states can continue to use marijuana for medical purposes without federal interference.

At issue is whether federal drug agents can arrest individuals who are abiding by those medical marijuana laws.

It’s a case that pains Angel Raich. Traditional drugs have done little to help Raich, 39, of Oakland, Calif.

Beset by a nightmarish list of ailments that includes tumors in her brain and uterus, seizures, spasms and nausea, she has been able to find comfort only in the marijuana that is recommended by her doctor.

It eases her pain, allows her to rise out of a wheelchair and promotes an appetite that prevents her from wasting away.

Her Berkeley physician, Frank Lucido, said marijuana “is the only drug of almost three dozen we have tried that works.”

California passed the nation’s first so-called medical marijuana law in 1996, allowing patients to smoke and grow marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. The Bush administration maintains that these laws violate federal drug rules and asserts that marijuana has no medical value.

“I really hope and pray the justices allow me to live,” said Raich, as she crammed a blend of a marijuana variety known as “Haze X” into a contraption that vaporized it inside large balloons.

She said the outcome of the case will determine whether her “husband will have a wife,” her “children a mother.”

The case will address questions left unresolved from the first time the high court considered the legality of medical marijuana.

In 2001, the justices ruled against clubs that distributed medical marijuana, saying they cannot do so based on the “medical necessity” of the patient. The ruling forced Raich’s Oakland supplier to close and other cannabis clubs to operate in the shadows.

The decision did not address whether the government can block states from adopting their own medical marijuana laws.

Nevertheless, the federal government took the offensive after the ruling, often over the objections of local officials. It began seizing individuals’ medical marijuana and raiding their suppliers. Nowhere was that effort more conspicuous than in the San Francisco Bay area, where the nation’s medical marijuana movement was founded.

Raich and Diane Monson, the other plaintiff in the case, sued Attorney General John Ashcroft because they feared their supplies of medical marijuana might dry up. After a two-year legal battle, they won injunctions barring the U.S. Justice Department from prosecuting them or their suppliers.

“This has been a nightmare,” said Monson, a 47-year-old accountant from Oroville whose back-yard crop of six marijuana plants was seized in 2002. “I’ve never sued anyone in my life, never mind the attorney general of the United States of America.”

She regularly uses marijuana on a doctor’s recommendation to alleviate back problems.

In December, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Raich’s and Monson’s favor. It said federal laws criminalizing marijuana do not apply to patients whose doctors have recommended the drug.

The appeals court said states were free to adopt medical marijuana laws as long as the marijuana was not sold, transported across state lines or used for nonmedicinal purposes. The other states with such laws are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Vermont and Washington.

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