Pubdate: Tue, 28 Nov 2000
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2000 The Sun-Times Co.
Contact:  401 N. Wabash, Chicago IL 60611
Author: William Booth, Washington Post


WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case brought by the 
Clinton administration to stop a California group from distributing 
"medical marijuana," which some patients say alleviates their suffering but 
which the federal government considers an illegal substance with no 
therapeutic value.

In a separate order, the court agreed to hear an appeal from a condemned 
killer in Texas whose lawyers say he is mentally retarded and should not be 

The case of Johnny Paul Penry might provide the court with a way to clarify 
how much information a jury in a death penalty case must have about a 
defendant's mental capacity. Penry's lawyers maintain that their client has 
an IQ of about 60. Prosecutors contend that Penry is not retarded, but 

In the marijuana case, the Clinton administration is seeking to stop the 
Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative from selling small bags of marijuana to 
patients, who say the drug helps them with pain and nausea and eases the 
symptoms of illnesses such as glaucoma.

In the past four years, nine states have passed medical marijuana laws: 
California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and 

California's law, passed by a wide margin of voters, legalizes the 
possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor's 
recommendation. Physicians cannot legally prescribe marijuana, and the law 
left murky how patients would procure the drug.

The case against the Oakland cannabis cooperative does not directly address 
the constitutionality of the state medical marijuana laws, but instead 
focuses on a narrower question: Is "medical necessity" a defense against 
violating federal laws that prohibit the distribution of marijuana?

"This case is directed toward that one very specific question," said Gina 
Pesulima of Americans for Medical Rights, which has sponsored most of the 
medical marijuana ballot initiatives. Pesulima said the case does not 
address the legality of patients possessing or using marijuana.

But if the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative prevails in arguing that 
medical necessity shields distributors from prosecution, Pesulima said her 
group--backed by millions of dollars in support from international 
financier George Soros and his partners--will press for state or municipal 
governments to play a role in distribution of medical marijuana.

Since the passage of the medical marijuana ballot initiatives, the federal 
government has focused most of its attention not on individual patients 
smoking or ingesting marijuana, but on buyer's clubs and cooperatives set 
up to procure, grow and distribute the drug.

Lawyers with the Justice Department argue that the distribution of medical 
marijuana violates the federal Controlled Substances Act, which includes 
marijuana among the drugs whose manufacture and distribution are prohibited.

Voters have repeatedly told pollsters that they generally support allowing 
sick and dying people to use marijuana if it offers relief.

But many physicians believe there are better legal drugs available to do 
what marijuana's advocates claim it can do. Large studies, however, have 
not been undertaken.

Also Monday, the court:

* Turned down a challenge by South Carolina gambling operators against the 
state's new ban on possession of video gambling machines.

* Heard oral arguments in a case that seeks to determine how to judge when 
race plays too large a role in drawing election districts. The North 
Carolina case is a follow-up to the justices' landmark 1993 ruling that 
election districts drawn to help minorities might violate white voters' rights.

Washington Post
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