Unanimous court strikes down medical use for marijuana
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 on Monday that there is no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana to ease their pain from cancer, AIDS or other illnesses.
Patients could still use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allow it, legal experts said. But it would be more difficult to obtain the drug because the Supreme Court said distribution violates federal law, they said.
Angel McClary, 35, of Oakland, said she will not stop using the drug to help her cope with an inoperable brain tumor and a seizure disorder.
”I am not going to let my children watch me die. If that is wrong so be it,” she told a news conference.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said a 1970 federal law ”reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception.” The only exemption is for government-funded research projects that involve some 200 people.
Thomas said the controlled substances statute ”includes no exception at all for any medical use of marijuana” except for the research, even though the law does so for other drugs. The court was ”unwilling to view this omission as an accident,” Thomas wrote.
Justice John Paul Stevens, though joining in the overall ruling, said in a concurring opinion with two colleagues that the decision went too far.
It should have left open the possibility that an individual could raise a medical necessity defense, especially a patient ”for whom there is no alternative means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering,” Stevens said.
He also said the ruling could lead to friction between the federal government and states that have passed medical marijuana laws.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not participate because his brother, a federal district judge, presided over the case.
The decision reversed a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that medical necessity can be a legal defense in marijuana cases.
The federal government triggered the case in 1998, seeking an injunction against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and five other marijuana distributors.
Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who represented the cooperative, said, ”The effect only reaches manufacturers and distributors. But it does put at risk patients who grow their own because that is manufacture under federal law.”
In California, however, individuals can legally grow marijuana for their own medical use. ”That’s the alternative source to the black market,” said Bill Zimmerman of Americans for Medical Rights, a Santa Monica group that sponsored state initiatives to permit medical marijuana use.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer called it ”unfortunate that the court was unable to respect California’s historic role as a … leader in the effort to help sick and dying residents who have no hope for relief other than through medical marijuana.” He said the opinion would be reviewed for its effect on California law.
Uelmen commented, ”I cannot imagine federal resources being poured into going out and arresting the sick people who are growing marijuana for medicinal use. I suspect federal resources will be used to seek injunctions to close down major distribution centers.”
Voters in Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have approved ballot initiatives allowing the use of medical marijuana. In Hawaii, the Legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year.
”We just heard of the ruling and our lawyers will have to review it and determine how that affects the Colorado law,” said Cindy Parmenter, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
While several clubs closed down, the Oakland cooperative turned to registering potential marijuana recipients while it awaited a final ruling.
Advocates of medical marijuana say the drug can ease side effects from chemotherapy, save nauseated AIDS patients from wasting away or even allow multiple sclerosis sufferers to rise from a wheelchair and walk.
Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy. Stevens was joined in his concurring opinion by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The case is United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, 00-151.
On the Net:
Supreme Court site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative: http://www.rxcbc.org
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