Supreme Court Will Hear Medical Marijuana Case
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether groups may provide marijuana to seriously ill patients on the grounds of "medical necessity," despite federal laws that ban distribution of the drug, the New York Times reports. The outcome of the case, U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, an appeal filed by the Clinton administration, will determine the future of dozens of marijuana cooperatives established to provide medical marijuana (Greenhouse, New York Times, 11/28). In addition, the case may "steer debate" over the "benefits and harms" of medical marijuana (Biskupic, USA Today, 11/28). In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, to allow the use of medical marijuana. Eight other states -- including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado -- have passed similar laws during the past four years (Booth, Washington Post, 11/28).
While the Supreme Court will not directly address the constitutionality of the laws, they will decide whether "medical necessity" can serve as a defense against the federal government's "zero-tolerance" drug policy (Savage/Reiterman, Los Angeles Times, 11/28). "This case is directed toward that one very specific question," according to Gina Pesulima of Americans for Medical Rights, a group that has sponsored many medical marijuana ballot initiatives (Washington Post, 11/28). Annette Carnegie, a lawyer for the Oakland group, argued yesterday that the federal Controlled Substances Act does not prohibit the distribution of medical marijuana, adding, "Those choices ... are best made by physicians and not by the government" (Asseo, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/28).
According to Robert Raich, another lawyer for the Oakland group, "[M]edical necessity, an ancient defense that goes back centuries in Anglo jurisprudence, continues to exist. Patients have no other effective therapy ... and they have a right to access to that medicine." He added that the court, to maintain precedents set on states' rights issues, should "respect" California's decision to approve Proposition 215. However, Justice Department attorneys maintain that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use," and call for the "narrowest reading" of federal drug laws (Los Angeles Times, 11/28).
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the government's case after a "string of lower court decisions" that first barred and then allowed the Oakland group to distribute marijuana to seriously ill patients. In August, the high court issued an injunction to halt marijuana distribution while the government pursued an appeal (Washington Post, 11/28). Justice Department lawyers argue that the lower court "seriously erred" in permitting the Oakland group to distribute the drug, calling the decision a "threat" to "the government's ability to enforce the federal drug laws" (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/28). If the court rules in favor the government, distribution of marijuana would become "illegal, regardless of the circumstances" (Los Angeles Times, 11/28).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.