U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Case on State Regulation of Medicinal Marijuana
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments in a case to determine whether states have the authority to allow residents to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, the AP/New York Times reports (AP/New York Times, 11/28). 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 Administration agents seized and destroyed Monson's marijuana plants in 2002, the two women sued Attorney General John Ashcroft to prevent future raids. In December 2003, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecuting medical marijuana patients is unconstitutional if the drug is not sold, transported across state lines or used for nonmedical purposes.
The case, Ashcroft v. Raich, focuses on whether the federal government has the authority to regulate a plant that is grown at home. Under the Constitution, the federal government has the power to regulate "commerce among the states," which is the basis for most federal regulatory laws. 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 does not come under federal authority (California Healthline, 11/16). Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Vermont and Montana have similar medical marijuana laws. A ruling is due by June 30 (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/28).
According to briefs filed by acting Solicitor General Paul Clement, the government has the authority to regulate the "manufacture, distribution and possession of any controlled substance" under the 1970 Controlled Substance Act -- even if such activity takes place solely within one state (AP/New York Times, 11/28). Clement argued that marijuana grown locally can enter the interstate market and cannot be differentiated from drugs produced for illegal sale. Granting the government the power to make growing marijuana at home illegal is necessary to controlling illicit trafficking, he said (Willing, USA Today, 11/26).
Seven Republican members of Congress filed a brief that said allowing patients to use medical marijuana would make their states "a haven for drug traffickers" and return the nation to "the 19th-century age of quack medicine" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/28). The Drug Free America Foundation in a friend-of-the-court brief stated, "We cannot allow individual states to undermine federal antidrug laws. Medical questions should be decided by the FDA -- in consultation with the medical profession -- not by pro-drug activists preying on public ignorance" (AP/New York Times, 11/28). According to DFAF, "The 'medical marijuana' concept is a Trojan horse tactic toward the goal of legalization" and promotes "medicine by popular vote" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/28). The DFAF added that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use."
Attorney Robert Long, one of Raich's lawyers, said a patient's locally grown supply of marijuana is not an economic activity and therefore is not subject to the rules of commerce under the Constitution. He also cited in briefs a 1992 case that allowed the federal right to abortion that states it "is too intimate and personal for the (federal government) to insist ... upon its own vision." Long argues the same ruling should apply to patients who decide to use marijuana (USA Today, 11/26). Lawyers for Raich and Monson also have "enlisted major conservative and libertarian groups to woo the justices on states' rights," including the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice, the Chronicle reports. According to filings by the Cato Institute, the power-sharing agreement written by the 13 original states under the Constitution "is dishonored when citizens in great physical pain are deprived of available medical treatment by a remote sovereign on the far side of the continent."
The Institute for Justice stated, "Federalism ... allows for experimentation at the state level" and called for the reinstatement of a 1930s court-imposed limit to federal regulation of in-state activities. The California Medical Association also supports patients' rights to use medical marijuana and filed a brief arguing that patients who are seriously ill should be able to make their own decisions regarding medical care, in consultation with a health care professional. According to the brief, in this case, "the alternative to which the government would relegate them is ... a life of unremitting, unrelieved physical pain" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/28).
Alabama Attorney General Troy King, joined by the attorneys general from Mississippi and Louisiana, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Raich and Monson. "While (the three) states may not see eye to eye with some of their neighbors concerning the wisdom of decriminalizing marijuana possession and use in certain instances, they support their neighbors' prerogative in our federalist system to serve as 'laboratories for experimentation,'" King wrote (Gibson, Baltimore Sun, 11/29).
According to the Christian Science Monitor, the case "could redefine the balance of power between Congress and the states and become a signature decision of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist" (Richey, Christian Science Monitor, 11/29). The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the case "tests court conservatives' commitment to a line of decisions that restrain federal intrusion into state matters" (Henderson, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/29).
Analysts say the case "demonstrates how the federalism doctrine ... is shifting from a conservative political tool to a liberal one," according to the Boston Globe (Savage, Boston Globe, 11/29). The case also is "critical to the medical marijuana movement" because it would be "meaningless" for a doctor to recommend the drug if "cannabis clubs [are] unable to distribute pot legally, ... unless users or their friends can grow it themselves," according to the Washington Post (Lane, Washington Post, 11/29).
If "an individual treats herself with marijuana under the sanction of state law and with a doctor's guidance, the impact on trafficking in dangerous drugs is close to nonexistent," according to a New York Times editorial. The "California women should win, [but] it is important that they win on narrow, fact-specific grounds," the Times continues. If a "sharply restricted" and "limited view of Congressional power" prevails, "it could substantially diminish the federal government's ability to protect Americans from unsafe work conditions, pollution, discrimination and other harms," the Times concludes (New York Times, 11/29).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Monday reported on the Supreme Court's consideration of the case (Totenberg, "Morning Edition," NPR, 11/29). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
In addition, NPR's "All Things Considered" on Sunday included an interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg about the Supreme Court's upcoming sessions, including the medical marijuana case (Totenberg, "All Things Considered," NPR, 11/28). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.