U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Appeal of Lower Court Decision on Medical Marijuana
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal filed by Attorney General John Ashcroft of a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that federal drug agents lack authority to arrest seriously ill residents who live in states with laws permitting the use of medical marijuana and who are using the drug under doctors' supervision, the Los Angeles Times reports (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/29). In December 2003, the appeals court ruled that prosecuting medical marijuana users under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional in states where the drug's use is allowed under a physician's advice, provided that the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for nonmedical purposes (California Healthline, 6/21). Under Proposition 215, a ballot measure approved by California voters in 1996, patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer and AIDS can use medical marijuana to treat pain with a recommendation from a physician (California Healthline, 4/16).
The case was filed by two California residents: Angel Raich, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, life-threatening weight loss, a seizure disorder and nausea; and Diana Monson, who has severe back pain and constant muscle spasms caused by a degenerative spine disease. After Drug Enforcement Agency agents seized and destroyed Monson's marijuana plants, the two women sued Ashcroft to prevent future raids (Fischer, Arizona Daily Star, 6/29). Raich receives her marijuana locally from two caregivers at no cost. Both women have recommendations from their physicians to use marijuana for medical purposes, as required by Proposition 215 (Egelko/Hoge, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/29). The case, Ashcroft v. Raich, focuses on whether the federal government has the authority to regulate marijuana grown at home (Los Angeles Times, 6/29). Attorneys for Raich and Monson argued that federal regulations do not apply to their case because the drug was grown, distributed and used in California (Ashley, Contra Costa Times, 6/29). The Controlled Substance Act contains a clause allowing the federal government to control interstate commerce, which federal agents and prosecutors have "relied on ... to combat [illicit drug] trafficking," the San Diego Union-Tribune reports (McDonald, San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/29). However, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the appeals court ruling that "noncommercial cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for personal medical purposes" is "different in kind from drug trafficking," is protected under California law and is not subject to federal authority. "It is a pretty far-fetched argument for them to say this involves interstate commerce because there is no commerce and no interstate activity," Robert Raich, Angel's husband and attorney, said (Los Angeles Times, 6/29).
The federal government contends that the Controlled Substances Act, which controls "all manufacturing, possession and distribution" of any drug it lists, cannot be enforced "if the intrastate manufacturing, possession and distribution of a drug may occur without any federal regulation" (Gearan, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 6/28). The appeal also states that the lower court's ruling "seriously undermines" the government's ability to regulate "dangerous drugs." It adds, "Marijuana is a commodity that is readily purchased and sold in a well-defined market of drug trafficking," regardless of whether a particular use occurs within a state's borders (Greenhouse, New York Times, 6/29). In the appeal, the Justice Department cited congressional findings that all illicit drug traffic affects interstate commerce by increasing the demand for drugs. It also stated that the appeals court "ignored the fact that federal law considers marijuana to be a dangerous drug with no legitimate use," the Chronicle reports (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/29).
California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have laws permitting the use of medical marijuana (New York Times, 6/29). Nine other states are considering laws protecting medicinal use of marijuana, according to the Sacramento Bee (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 6/29). In addition, 35 states have enacted legislation recognizing potential medical uses for marijuana (Kravets, AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/28). The case will be heard in the fall and will affect the status of similar laws in other states (Los Angeles Times, 6/29). A ruling in the case is due by June 2005 (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/29).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.