Court Skeptical of Marijuana’s Medical Necessity
Several Supreme Court justices appeared "unconvinced" yesterday that the "medical necessity" of "seriously ill patients" wanting to use marijuana for medicinal purposes is a valid defense against federal drug laws, USA Today reports (Biskupic, USA Today, 3/29). Hearing arguments in the case of U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the court's more conservative justices "gave every indication they will rule that federal law strictly forbids the distribution of marijuana and that neither ... voters nor other judges are free to make exceptions for those who suffer pain and nausea," the Los Angeles Times reports. The events leading up to this case began in 1996, when California voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana and allowing "cannabis clubs" to distribute the drug (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 3/29). The federal government then sought an injunction against the clubs, arguing that their actions were a "blatant violation of the Controlled Substances Act," under which marijuana is classified as having "no currently accepted medical use." A district court judge initially sided with the government and granted the injunction, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that "medical necessity" exempted seriously ill patients from the federal drug law (Conkey/Anand, Wall Street Journal, 3/29). The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, which in August issued an "emergency order" to block the distribution of marijuana by the clubs, setting the stage for yesterday's oral arguments.
Representing the Oakland cooperative, attorney Gerald Uelmen defended the 9th Circuit's ruling, saying that the lower court had only created a "very narrow exception for a very limited number of people," adding, "They are gravely ill, in pain and unable to eat." Several justices disagreed with this characterization of the lower court's decision: Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the lower court undertook a "huge rewriting" of the Controlled Substances Act; Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated that federal authorities maintain there is "no known medical use" for marijuana and that Congress has "ruled" out the "medical necessity" defense; and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that the court "erred" in creating a "blanket exception" to the act (Los Angeles Times, 3/29). This line of reasoning was echoed by Acting Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, who told the court that ruling in favor of the distribution clubs would "undermine the authority (of Congress) to protect the public from hazardous drugs," and that allowing a "medical necessity" defense would create a "massive loophole" in federal drug laws (Lane, Washington Post, 3/29). Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself from the case because his brother Charles is the district court judge who initially ruled on the government's injunction request (Greenhouse, New York Times, 3/29).
While it appears "likely" that the Supreme Court will strike down "medical necessity" as a defense for medicinal marijuana, the scope of their ruling remains uncertain (Los Angeles Times, 3/29). While eight states have joined California in passing medical marijuana laws, at issue in this case is the legality of distribution by cooperatives, and not the "medical use of marijuana and by individual patients and doctors" (New York Times, 3/29). A ruling in favor of the government would mean it could "prosecute distributors aggressively in federal courts, regardless of whether states have medical marijuana use," an occurrence that advocates say would "force providers underground or out of business altogether" (Gearan, AP/Newark Star-Ledger, 3/29). On this point, the Washington Post reports that yesterday's arguments touched on the seeming disparity between "strong support for medical marijuana laws in certain states" and "national politicians" who support a "zero tolerance" policy on drugs. Justice David Souter, noting that the government sought an injunction against the cooperatives instead of criminal charges, asked, "Isn't the real concern behind this that with the passage of the California referendum and the popularity ... that necessarily entails it will be very, very difficult for the government ever to get a criminal conviction in a jury trial?" In a similar vein, medical marijuana advocates say that even if the cannabis clubs were prohibited, "people in states that permit" the drug's use "could still grow their own ... and it would be up to the federal government to find and prosecute them" (Washington Post, 3/29).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.