The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a blow to the medical marijuana
movement Monday, ruling that the federal government has the
power to prosecute patients whose actions are legal under
The 6-3 ruling rejected two Northern California women's claims
that the marijuana they take for serious medical conditions
is beyond the constitutional reach of federal drug laws because
it is locally grown and supplied without charge. The ruling
comes four years after the court allowed federal authorities
to shut down an Oakland medical marijuana club and spurned
the club's claim that it had a right to serve patients with
dire medical needs.
The federal laws that bar possessing, growing and furnishing
marijuana, and classify it as a substance with no legitimate
use are authorized by Congress' power to regulate interstate
commerce, even when applied to transactions that are neither
interstate nor commercial, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote
for the majority.
Because there is no difference between locally grown and out-of-state
marijuana, and no way to guarantee that drugs won't wind up
in illicit markets, "Congress had a rational basis for
believing that failure to regulate the intrastate manufacture
and possession of marijuana would leave a gaping hole'' in
federal drug laws, Stevens said. He called the case difficult
and troubling but said any change must come from Congress.
Dissenters said the ruling gives the federal government more
power over state affairs than the framers of the Constitution
"This overreaching stifles an express choice by some
states, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people,
to regulate medical marijuana differently,'' Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor said.
The ruling does not repeal California's Proposition 215, a
1996 initiative that served as a model for laws in nine other
states that protect patients from state prosecution if they
obtain marijuana with a recommendation from their doctor.
But this decision and the high court's 2001 ruling in the
Oakland case give federal prosecutors and law enforcement
agencies free rein to disrupt the state laws by seizing marijuana
plants and prosecuting patients and their suppliers.
Former President Bill Clinton's administration reacted to
Prop. 215 by filing civil suits against pot clubs that sprang
up around the state. President Bush said during his 2000 campaign
that the issue should be left to the states, but his administration
has raided and prosecuted medical marijuana suppliers in California.
Both administrations also tried to punish doctors who recommended
marijuana to their patients, but federal courts ruled in the
"Today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana
as a political issue, '' declared the Bush administration's
chief of drug control policy, John Walters. "We have
a responsibility as a civilized society to ensure that the
medicine Americans receive from their doctors is effective,
safe and free from the pro-drug policies that are being promoted
in America under the guise of medicine.''
On the other side, Angel Raich of Oakland, lead plaintiff
in the case on which the Supreme Court ruled Monday, said
she won't stop her practice of taking marijuana every two
hours -- to combat the pain of scoliosis, endometriosis, seizures
and a life-threatening wasting syndrome -- or advocating its
legalization for medical use. She plans to visit Congress
next week to lobby for a bill that would cut off funding for
enforcement of federal drug laws against medical marijuana
in states where it is legal.
"If I stopped using cannabis, I would die,'' Raich, 39,
said in a telephone news conference, telling reporters that
she was taking the drug while speaking to them. "I do
not feel that patients are going to stop using their medicine
just because the Supreme Court has ruled against them. ...
I would like to be able to follow the law, (but) the law is
Co-plaintiff Diane Monson of Oroville (Butte County) also
said she will continue to use marijuana, with her doctor's
approval, to fend off pain from back spasms.
Federal agents seized six marijuana plants from Monson's property
in 2002. She then joined Raich, who got her marijuana from
two anonymous growers, in a civil suit claiming immunity from
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who filed arguments in
support of the two women, said Monday's ruling "shows
the vast philosophical differences between the federal government
and Californians on the rights of patients to have access
to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives.''
This isn't necessarily the last word from the federal courts;
one issue not yet addressed in Raich and Monson's case is
their argument that they have a constitutional right to take
substances that prevent agony or death.
But Monday's ruling doused marijuana advocates' hopes that
a states' rights argument would sway a court that has limited
federal power over the states on other matters. One such ruling,
in 1995, struck down a federal law banning gun possession
near schools; another ruling, in 2000, overturned a law allowing
perpetrators of domestic violence to be prosecuted or sued
in federal court.
Raich and Monson drew support from some conservative organizations
that oppose federal regulation. The government was supported
by the Community Rights Counsel, a liberal group that feared
a ruling in favor of the patients would weaken federal regulation
of health care and the environment.
In 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in
San Francisco barred federal prosecution of the two women
and other medical marijuana patients, saying federal drug
law does not apply to noncommercial use of marijuana by individuals.
The ruling also raised the possibility that marijuana cooperatives
in Santa Cruz (the target of a federal raid) and Oakland (subject
of the 2001 Supreme Court decision and shutdown order) would
win protection from federal enforcement.
In Monday's majority opinion, however, Stevens said the narcotics
trade is a lucrative nationwide enterprise that Congress is
entitled to regulate. Exempting personal medical use -- under
a loosely written state law that could be abused by profit-hungry
doctors as well as drug traffickers -- would affect both supply
and demand, he said.
He was joined by the other three members of the court's moderate
to liberal wing, Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer and
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who have generally favored preserving
federal power. O'Connor and her fellow dissenters, Chief Justice
William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, have voted
to restrict federal power over the states.
The two deciding votes were cast by Justices Anthony Kennedy,
a moderate conservative, and Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative,
both of whom have voted for state autonomy in other cases
but sided with the majority Monday.
In a separate opinion from Stevens', Scalia wrote that "marijuana
that is grown at home and possessed for personal use is never
more than an instant from the interstate market,'' even if
it is for medicinal use.
Dissenters retorted that the same could be said of other locally
circulated commodities, like guns possessed near schools,
the subject of the 1995 ruling limiting federal authority.
"If Congress can regulate this (the two patients' marijuana)
under the Commerce Clause,'' Thomas wrote, "then it can
regulate virtually anything.''.
The case is Gonzales vs. Raich, 03-1454.
What U.S. Supreme Court decision means
Q: What was the court majority's reasoning?
A: The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco
had ruled that Congress lacked the constitutional authority
to regulate the noncommercial cultivation and use of marijuana
that does not cross state lines. But the Supreme Court held
that Congress acted within its broad power to regulate interstate
commerce. The court, noting the lucrative interstate trade
in illegal drugs, said Congress could reasonably conclude
that allowing people to use home-grown marijuana would lead
to trafficking in the drug under the guise of medicinal use.
Q: Does this strike down Proposition 215?
A: No. California's Prop. 215 and similar laws in nine other
states remain on the books. But the ruling allows the federal
government to prosecute patients and their suppliers in any
of those states.
Q: Will the ruling affect the availability of marijuana to
patients now using it?
A: Probably not, because the federal government says it has
no interest in going after individual patients and small suppliers,
leaving most regulation and enforcement up to state and local
authorities. But the potential for federal raids could affect
Q: Are there any remaining legal challenges to federal authority?
A: Lawyers for patients Angel Raich and Diane Monson have
one argument that the courts have not addressed: that patients
have a constitutional right to use medication that will save
them from death or severe pain. The lawyers say they'll offer
that argument when the case is returned to a federal appeals
Q: Is Congress planning legislation on medical marijuana?
A: Bills have been repeatedly proposed, unsuccessfully so
far, to ban enforcement of federal drug laws against medical
marijuana cultivation or use that is legal in a state. A bill
expected to come before the House next week would cut off
funding for such enforcement.
Source: Chronicle staff and news services
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.