Federal Appeals Court Hears California Case on Physician Recommendation of Medical Marijuana
In a case that will affect medical marijuana laws in California and several other states, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco yesterday heard arguments in the government's appeal of a 2000 ruling that the Department of Justice cannot revoke a doctor's license to prescribe controlled medications for recommending that patients with debilitating diseases use marijuana to relieve their symptoms, the Contra Costa Times reports. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the medical use of marijuana for people with diseases such as AIDS or cancer. Under the law, doctors can advise patients about and recommend medical marijuana, but the patient must find his or her own means of obtaining the drug. Doctors cannot issue prescriptions for the drug (Booth, Contra Costa Times, 4/8). In the 2000 case, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the federal government cannot revoke a physician's license to prescribe other medications "merely because the doctor recommends medical marijuana to a patient based on a sincere medical judgment." The government has sought the right to prosecute doctors for recommending a substance that remains illegal under federal law (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/8). In a separate case last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the illegality of medical marijuana, which allowed the federal government to prosecute cannabis suppliers (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 4/9).
Michael Stern, the attorney for the federal government, said California's law is "interfering with the drug war and circumventing the government's judgment that marijuana has no medical benefits" (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/8). However, when pressed by the three-judge panel, Stern did not say how a doctor's recommendation would hamper federal drug enforcement efforts, only that it was "perfectly reasonable for the Justice Department to contemplate that there were going to be problems." Graham Boyd, attorney for the defendant and director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Policy Litigation Project, called the government's position "unsustainable" because of its vagueness. "There needs to be a clean line drawn," Boyd said, noting that a doctor cannot be held liable for a transaction between a patient and a third party, such as a cannabis club (Contra Costa Times, 4/8). He added that doctor-patient conversations were protected by the First Amendment (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/8). A ruling in the case is not expected for several months (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/9).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.