Medical Marijuana Patients Win Big as Court Upholds State Law

December 07, 2006

SAN DIEGO - A San Diego Superior Court today handed a critical victory to medical marijuana patients nationwide, affirming the ability of states to exempt qualified patients from criminal penalties, despite federal policy that prohibits all marijuana use.

  Following oral arguments by the Americans for Safe Access, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance, the court confirmed the validity of California's medical marijuana laws, rejecting the contention of several counties – San Diego, San Bernardino and Merced – that such laws are made invalid by federal law. 

“The judge agreed with us that there is no real conflict between federal and state law, and that the state's voluntary ID cards program does not interfere with the purpose of Prop. 215," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access. “This ruling upholds both the will of the voters and the legislature's attempt to help implement it. The protections provided to patients under state law have been confirmed.”

Enacted in 1996, the Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215, allows qualified patients with a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana.  The Medical Marijuana Program Act, passed in 2003, requires counties to implement an identification card program that allows law enforcement to properly identify legitimate patients.

"This is a vital win for patients and a resounding step forward for the medical marijuana movement," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU who joined ASA's Joe Elford in arguing the case.  "This case, the first and only frontal assault on medical marijuana laws in the nation, has been soundly rejected. The victory here saves state medical marijuana laws from a cruel and ill-founded suit by a handful of rogue counties.”

The California Attorney General’s office argued in parallel with ASA, the ACLU, and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) that state medical marijuana laws are not rendered invalid by conflicting federal statutes – consistent with the opinions of the attorneys general of several other states, including Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon, which permit medical use of marijuana.

“The ruling is a triumph for not only patients and the rule of law, but for the democratic process as well,” said Tamar Todd, an attorney for DPA. “Americans need not march in lock step with the federal government’s failed drug war”

The case originated from a lawsuit initially brought by San Diego County, and later joined by San Bernardino and Merced counties, against the state of California.  ASA, the ACLU and DPA intervened in the proceedings on behalf of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers and doctors in order to assure adequate representation of those most impacted by the case.

The groups represented Wendy Christakes, William Britt and Yvonne Westbrook, Californians who use physician-recommended marijuana to treat medical conditions and their side-effects, including chronic pain and sciatica, multiple sclerosis, rectal cancer, epilepsy and post-polio syndrome.  The groups also represented Pamela Sakuda, a patient who passed away after the lawsuit was filed, as well as Sakuda’s spouse and caregiver, Norbert Litzinger and Dr. Stephen O’Brien, a physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment in Oakland, California, and believes that many of his seriously ill patients benefit from the medical use of marijuana.

In addition to being co-counsel, ASA was also a party to the proceedings on behalf of its membership, which includes thousands of medical marijuana patients, caregivers and physicians residing in California.  The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) was represented by the groups as well.  WAMM is a medical marijuana collective and hospice located in Santa Cruz, California, whose 250 members, the majority of whom are terminally ill, use marijuana to treat a range of conditions.

“For the tens of thousands of seriously ill Californians who depend on medical marijuana, this victory could not be more significant,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA). “San Diego Supervisor Bill Horn stated he was seeking clarification from the courts. Now that the court has ruled, we hope that San Diego and counties across California will move forward with implementing state law.”

The court’s ruling, issued by Judge William R. Nevitt, is available at www.safeaccessnow.org/downloads/SD_Ruling.pdf

The groups’ legal papers are online at AmericansForSafeAccess.org/briefbank



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