Two Northern California women who say medical marijuana is
their only shield from a life of agony take their case to
the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a clash between federal
power to regulate drug use and a state's authority to determine
medical care for its residents.
It is a case of unusual alliances, with some prominent conservative
organizations siding with the patients on the issue of states'
rights and limited federal powers. A ruling is due by the
end of June.
This will be the court's first look at medical marijuana since
2001, when the justices upheld the federal shutdown of an
Oakland pot dispensary and found no exemption in federal drug
laws for claims of medical necessity. The case appears to
represent advocates' last hope of winning legal protection
from the federal crackdown that began in 1996, when Californians
approved the nation's first law allowing patients to use marijuana
with a doctor's approval.
Similar laws have been passed since then in nine other states:
Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Maine,
Vermont and Montana. But federal law since 1970 has classified
marijuana as a dangerous drug with no legitimate use and has
prohibited possession, cultivation and distribution.
The Bush administration has enforced the law aggressively
in California, with a series of raids and criminal prosecutions.
The question before the court is whether individual patients
-- and, possibly, some of their suppliers -- are immune from
The argument goes like this: The Constitution authorizes Congress
to regulate interstate commerce. But no interstate commerce
is involved when patients, acting legally under state law,
use marijuana that was grown within the state and supplied
The counterargument, by the government and its allies, is
that all illicit drug use affects interstate commerce. Even
freely supplied marijuana boosts the demand for the drug,
reduces the overall supply and may affect the price, the government
says; in addition, pot looks the same whether it's grown locally
or shipped between states.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled
in favor of the patients last December, saying their use of
marijuana was noncommercial and was beyond the power of Congress
to prohibit. The court also told federal judges to decide
whether the ruling -- if it survives Supreme Court review
- - would protect a marijuana cooperative in Oakland, which
was closed by a government lawsuit, and another in Santa Cruz,
which was raided by federal agents.
One of the plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court,
Angel Raich of Oakland, obtains marijuana from two anonymous
suppliers and uses it every two hours to ward off pain and
loss of appetite from a brain tumor, seizure disorder and
other debilitating conditions. Co-plaintiff Diane Monson of
Oroville (Butte County) takes marijuana to combat back pain
and muscle spasms and grew her own plants until federal agents
seized them in 2002. Both have doctors' recommendations and
say they tried all available legal medicines without success.
Their hopes depend on swaying one or more of the court's conservative
justices, who, under the banner of federalism, have issued
a series of rulings since 1995 limiting the federal government's
power over the states. Two rulings have overturned federal
laws -- one that banned gun possession near schools, another
that allowed victims of rape and domestic violence to sue
in federal court -- on the grounds that they did not affect
To that end, lawyers for Raich and Monson have enlisted major
conservative and libertarian groups to woo the justices on
In one court filing, the Cato Institute argued that the power-sharing
agreement made by the original 13 states in ratifying 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.''
"Federalism ... allows for experimentation at the state
level,'' declared the Institute for Justice, another conservative-leaning
libertarian organization, whose brief called for a return
to limits imposed by courts in the 1930s on federal authority
to regulate in-state activities.
On the other side, the government's supporters include one
group, Community Rights Counsel, usually associated with liberal
causes such as environmental protection. Its brief urged the
court to preserve federal "legislative flexibility to
address national concerns'' such as drug trafficking.
Another hurdle for Raich and Monson is the fact that they
are asking the court to grant a partial exemption to the government-declared
war on drugs for states with medical marijuana laws. This
would be in open defiance of Congress, which has repeatedly
declared that marijuana has no medical value.
"The 'medical marijuana' concept is a Trojan horse tactic
toward the goal of legalization,'' said the Drug Free America
Foundation and other anti-drug organizations in a filing in
support of the federal government's position. They said initiatives
like California's Proposition 215 promote "medicine by
A brief by seven Republican members of Congress said exempting
medical patients from federal marijuana laws would make their
states "a haven for drug traffickers'' and return the
nation to "the 19th-century age of quack medicine. ''
The Justice Department, in its written arguments, warned that
any exemption for in-state possession and distribution would
create a new class of drug manufacturers and pharmacies immune
from federal regulation.
Medical marijuana advocates and their allies responded indignantly.
"Just because Congress says it does not make it so,''
said the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws, referring to congressional findings on the dangerousness
and uselessness of marijuana. "The chronically ill in
California are the casualties in this war.''
The patients also draw support from some medical organizations,
including the California Medical Association, which signed
a brief arguing that seriously ill people should make their
own medical decisions, in consultation with health professionals.
In this case, the brief said, "the alternative to which
the government would relegate them is ... a life of unremitting,
unrelieved physical pain.''
The case is Ashcroft vs. Raich, 03-1454.