Medical marijuana a state matter

November 30, 2004

EDITORIAL, Atlanta Journal Constitution

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments over whether states can permit the seriously ill to buy or grow marijuana to ease their pain. When the smoke clears, however, the case will be decided on the issue of states' rights, rather than on whether pot deserves a place in the medicine cabinet.

That's a shame, because there is evidence that marijuana — or at least its primary active chemical — does have medicinal properties. Both the American Medical Association and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, support more research on the issue. Prohibiting well-intended, controlled access to marijuana is not going to make the study easier.

The case before the Supreme Court is from California. That state nurtured the use of marijuana as an alternative medicine by approving its use as a pain reliever. Ten other states also have legalized it for medical purposes, despite opposition from the federal government, starting with the Clinton administration.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the U.S. government can enforce federal drug laws even if no interstate commerce is involved. The Controlled Substances Act, which covers marijuana, became law under the federal government's constitutional right to regulate business that crosses state lines.

The case in point started when the federal Drug Enforcement Agency seized six marijuana plants grown by a California woman. She was using marijuana to combat the pain of a degenerative spinal disease because other medicines had failed to help her.

She and three other plaintiffs sued to halt future seizures by the federal government. They argued that their marijuana production and use was strictly an intrastate affair and therefore shielded from federal drug laws. A district court disagreed, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed that decision.

In doing so, the appeals court made a distinction between drug trafficking, in which intrastate and interstate activities cannot be separated, and the use of marijuana as recommended by a doctor.

On Monday, some of the justices of the Supreme Court seemed to have difficulty following that logic. They stopped just short of asking lawyers for the pro-marijuana plaintiffs what they'd been smoking.

That's not good for the marijuana-as-medicine movement. But then, this is a question that ultimately should be resolved in the research lab, not before the Supreme Court.



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