MEDICAL MARIJUANA: L.A. Judge Bars Medical Use Defense
Less than two weeks before their trial for marijuana possession is set to begin Nov. 16, defendants Todd McCormick and Peter McWilliams have been prohibited by a Federal District Court Judge from making any references to "the purported medical benefits of marijuana" in their defense. The defendants were charged following a July 1997 raid that turned up 4,000 marijuana plants in a Los Angeles mansion known as "the castle." The New York Times reported Sunday that Judge George H. King barred the defendants from referencing California's Proposition 215, which allows patients to smoke marijuana under a physician's direction. McCormick claims he smokes marijuana to treat "pain from cancer treatments that fused several of his vertebrae," and McWilliams says he uses the substance to treat "nausea from drugs he uses to treat AIDS." The defendants also are barred from referring to the federal government's own experimental medicinal marijuana programs. In the court filings, prosecutors have stated that the "medical issues are irrelevant to the case," and that if allowed into evidence, such information "will serve only to confuse and mislead the jury." Mr. McWilliams, who faces a minimum 10 year prison sentence if convicted of charges of conspiring to grow and sell marijuana, said, "I'm devastated. I can't even present my case to the jury. We just have to sit there and listen to the evidence, and we've already admitted everything. Obviously, the federal government is stonewalling any discussion of medical marijuana in any forum." McWilliams, along with McCormick, is accused of approaching a cannabis club employee with an offer to sell marijuana and for aspiring "to become the 'Bill Gates of medical marijuana.'"
The Post notes that the trial comes at a time of "increasing conflict in America's relationship with marijuana." Some recent developments: voters in Maine last week joined six western states in approving an initiative for medical use; a report commissioned by the Clinton administration has concluded that active ingredients in marijuana are useful in treating pain and nausea; and a September U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision allowed the reopening of an Oakland, CA cannabis club. Marijuana remains classified by Congress as a Schedule I controlled substance, akin to heroin and LSD. King's ruling specifies that allowing McCormick and McWilliams to use the medical necessity defense would "explicitly contradict a Congressional determination." Moreover, prosecutors contend that marijuana's Schedule I status legally defines the drug as having no legitimate use. Defense lawyers counter that the Oakland decision opens the door to a medical necessity defense. But federal prosecutors are so intent on barring medical issues from the courtroom that they agreed to dismiss the charges of intent to distribute if Judge King prohibited the Prop. 215 defense. Thus, the case's central question centers around whether McWilliams and McCormick can claim "they broke the law because their health required it."
Legalization advocates herald the case as a "barometer of the federal government's willingness to aggressively prosecute medical marijuana cases" in states where medical use is legal. Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, notes that "To some degree, the outcome of the case will shape the extent to which the federal government proceeds with additional federal prosecutions for offenses which are no longer illegal under state law. If it's a clean victory, it will encourage them to use federal prosecution" (New York Times, 11/7).
The Wrong Battle
A Saturday Washington Post editorial notes that although the Clinton administration has opposed all eight medical marijuana ballot initiatives brought over the past three years, each has passed. The administration fears that permitting the use of medical marijuana may open the floodgates for more general drug legalization and may "muddy public education efforts that denounce drug use." But the editors note that voters are not the only group supporting medical marijuana. Indeed, the Institute of Medicine has determined that marijuana-derived chemicals "alleviate cancer and AIDS symptoms." Moreover, the Post states that ballot initiatives have been drafted to restrict access, remedying concerns about controlling use. The editorial concludes by urging the Clinton administration to drop its opposition of the use of medical marijuana, noting the stance is "ineffective and unpopular" with both voters and some law enforcers, and that the administration should reopen the federal program granting access to marijuana for terminally ill patients (Washington Post, 11/6).