MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Supreme Court Bars Distribution
The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld a ban on the distribution of medical marijuana in California, the New York Times reports. By a 7-1 margin, the court granted an emergency request from the Clinton administration to postpone a lower court ruling that would have allowed the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative to dispense the drug to seriously ill patients (Stout, New York Times, 8/30). Last September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that groups could distribute marijuana in cases of "medical necessity," and U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who barred clubs from distributing the drug in 1998, reversed his ruling in July. The Justice Department vowed to appeal the 9th Circuit finding, arguing that it would "encourage drug traffickers and promote disrespect for the law," and two weeks ago DOJ officials asked the Supreme Court to issue the emergency order (Savage/Glionna, Los Angeles Times, 8/30). According to the Oakland club's lawyers, "The government has provided no evidence that states ... that have passed medical cannabis laws have any difficulty prosecuting violations of their drug statutes" (Reuters/San Jose Mercury News, 8/29). Despite the club's arguments, the Supreme Court granted the government's request and will decide whether to hear the case when it begins its fall session. Justice John Paul Stevens stood as the court's lone dissenter, claiming that the government had "failed to demonstrate that the denial of necessary medicine to seriously ill and dying patients will advance the public interest." Justice Stephen Breyer, brother of Charles Breyer, recused himself from the case (Los Angeles Times, 8/30).
Fall of 215?
USA Today reports that the Supreme Court ruling sent a "chilling" message to the 36 California clubs that supply medical marijuana to 20,000 patients under the state's Proposition 215, a 1996 ballot measure that allows not-for-profit groups to distribute marijuana to patients with a doctor's approval (Kasindorf, 8/30). While the order does not overturn the law, it conveys a "strong signal" that the court will strike down Prop. 215 and similar laws in other states during its fall term. Medical marijuana advocates blasted the court's decision, calling the ruling "a step backward for the cause." According to Denis Peron, chief author of Prop. 215, "This [decision] is about more than marijuana. ... It's about the Supreme Court interfering with states' rights" (Los Angeles Times, 8/30). Oakland club lawyer Robert Raich dismissed the court ruling as a "small bump in the road," focusing his attacks on the Justice Department's relentless pursuit of the case. "It is a travesty that the Clinton-Gore administration is trying so vigorously to keep the only medicine that works away from patients who so desperately need it," he said (Sanchez, Washington Post, 8/30).
Patients in Peril?
The decision to uphold a ban on the distribution of medical marijuana in California "shocked and frightened" many of the state's 5,000 patients who rely on the drug to ease suffering from debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, the Los Angeles Times reports. Although the court order probably will not have an immediate effect on cannabis clubs across the state, the ruling indicates that the high court will probably review the issue during its fall term and could "ban all the California clubs" from distributing marijuana. Club owners not involved in the case plan to continue their operations, but they noted that many patients found the court's decision "unsettling." According to Scott Imler, president of the 840-member Los Angeles Cannabis Center, "Our phones have been ringing off the hook. People are afraid." Imler, a co-author of Prop. 215, vowed to continue providing the drug to the club's members. "We have come too far in the last few years, and we have no intention of being driven back to the streets to meet our needs," he said, adding, "We just want to be able to take care of ourselves in peace and not constantly be threatened by arrest and prosecution" (Merl, 8/31).
You Say You Want a Revolution ...
Meanwhile, the University of California announced last week a new cannabis study center where researchers hope to determine the effectiveness of medical marijuana, the Los Angeles Times reports. Through clinical trials and basic research, doctors at the center will study cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis patients to learn whether the drug may help alleviate pain, nausea and loss of appetite as early research and anecdotal evidence suggests. California has funded the center with $3 million, and millions more are expected to come from federal grants (Perry/Glionna, Los Angeles Times, 8/30). According to Dr. Igor Grant, who will serve as director of the center, "Without reliable, substantial information about marijuana, I'm doubtful that any progress will be made in resolving the controversy" (Carelli, AP/Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 8/29). Peron criticized the effort as "another misguided marijuana study," calling it a stall tactic. "We already have more than 10,000 studies ... They'll never understand how marijuana works. One day, they'll just have to accept that it works. ... [T]hey're trying to stall the whole marijuana revolution," he said (Los Angeles Times, 8/30).