What Does Supreme Court Ruling on Medical Marijuana Mean for California?
As reported yesterday, in a "setback, but not a definitive blow" to the medical marijuana movement, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that "medical necessity" is not a valid defense against a federal law banning the distribution of marijuana, the New York Times reports. Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Congress' determination that marijuana is a Schedule One drug under the Controlled Substances Act meant that it has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States" (Greenhouse, New York Times, 5/15). The case stems from an attempt by the federal government to shut down an Oakland, Calif., marijuana cooperative that arose following the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, a state ballot initiative allowing the distribution of the drug for medical purposes (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 5/15). U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer initially sided with the federal government and ruled that the cooperative be closed, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and ordered Breyer to rewrite his decision "to permit the cooperative to continue distributing marijuana to those who could prove that it was a 'medical necessity.'" Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who recused himself from yesterday's decision (Lane, Washington Post, 5/15).
While the court ruled that distribution of marijuana violates federal law, the New York Times reports that the decision was a "relatively narrow" one that "left a number of questions unanswered" as the seven states that have passed initiatives similar to California's -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington -- weigh their responses to the ruling. The ruling did not invalidate any of the state laws, but among the uncertainties are whether individual patients -- and not the buying cooperative that the decision addresses -- can claim medical necessity in possessing or growing marijuana, and whether states can directly distribute marijuana themselves, a system that Maine and Nevada are considering (New York Times, 5/15).
Law officials and providers of the drug in California "spent the day in conference with attorneys," determining how the federal decision would affect the dozens of buying clubs and nearly 30,000 people who use the drug on doctors' orders, the Los Angeles Times reports. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) said that further review is necessary before "any conclusions are reached or recommendations are made about California law." Lockyer added that the decision "disappointed" him because the court "was unable to respect California's historic role as a 'laboratory' for good public policy and a leader in the effort to help sick and dying residents who have no hope for relief other than through medical marijuana." Nathan Barankin, spokesperson for Lockyer, said that the attorney general's office would meet with local law enforcement officials to "map out a state response" to the ruling (La Ganga, Los Angeles Times, 5/15). Bill Zimmerman, director of the Santa Monica-based Americans for Medical Rights, added, "This decision does not render medical marijuana laws moot." He said that states could circumvent the decision by setting up distribution systems for the drug (Nieves, New York Times, 5/15). But Marsha Cohen, a University of California-Hastings College of the Law professor, said that the decision "puts a cloud over the proposition." She added, "What the [marijuana buying] clubs have been doing is not even legal under state law, and yet state enforcement officials have looked the other way. The feds have stopped looking the other way. Now that they have this decision ... it will embolden them to try to shut down the clubs."
Many medical marijuana advocates around California, however, said that despite the ruling, medical marijuana users would be able to get the drug "no matter what." Scott Imler, president of the West Hollywood-based Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, said, "The co-op will continue in its mission. We will continue to cooperatively cultivate marijuana for our own medicinal needs." Sean Karrigan, who works at the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, said, "We expect the feds to say, 'Close or else we'll arrest you.' But we'll wait until then." But Ukiah Cannabis Club Director Marvin Lehrman said he "does not expect federal authorities to knock at his door any time soon" (Los Angeles Times, 5/15).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.