Pubdate: Wed, 15 Oct 2003
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2003 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Barbara Feder Ostrov, Mercury News
Cited: Marijuana Policy Project ( )
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Ashcroft, John)
Bookmark: (Bush, George)
Bookmark: (Walters v. Conant)
Note: The Associated Press contributed to this report.


The U.S. Supreme Court handed a clear victory to medicinal marijuana 
advocates Tuesday, letting stand a lower court ruling that found it 
unconstitutional for federal officials to investigate and punish doctors 
who recommend pot to their patients.

The justices declined without comment to review the ruling that upheld 
physicians' rights to speak freely with their patients. That ruling, issued 
by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, strengthens protections for 
doctors in states with medicinal marijuana laws, like California, and could 
make it easier for other states to pass similar laws.

The Supreme Court's action does not resolve the tension between California 
law, which permits the use of medicinal marijuana, and federal laws, which 
ban growing, using or selling the drug. Indeed, the court ruled against 
medicinal marijuana clubs in 2001. Still, medicinal marijuana supporters 
and health officials hailed the decision as a triumph for free speech.

"The court has clearly upheld the right of states to protect the rights of 
doctors and patients to discuss treatments without Big Brother 
interfering," said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy 
Project. "This decision will lift a burden from a lot of folks."

Attorney General John Ashcroft had no comment on the decision, while White 
House spokeswoman Claire Buchan restated the Bush administration's position 
on the topic, saying: "As a matter of policy, we oppose any efforts to 
legalize marijuana."

California and eight other states have enacted medicinal marijuana laws, 
which depend on doctors' ability to evaluate patients and determine if 
marijuana alleviates pain and nausea from diseases such as cancer and AIDS. 
Without a doctor's recommendation, patients may not be entitled to legal 
protections under laws like California's Proposition 215, approved by 
voters in 1996 to allow marijuana for medicinal use.

The Clinton administration reacted to the passage of Proposition 215 and a 
similar law in Arizona by initiating a policy of threatening to take away 
the prescribing licenses of doctors who recommended medicinal marijuana to 
their patients.

A group of doctors and patients challenged that policy in Conant vs. 
Walters, the 1997 case that the Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to 
review. In court papers, Bush administration lawyers contended that a 
doctor's recommendation that a patient use marijuana violates federal drug 
laws because it is equivalent to issuing a prescription for a banned drug 
and could encourage illegal use.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment 
allows physicians to discuss and advocate medical marijuana, even though 
use of marijuana is illegal. The court also ruled that it is the right of 
states, not the federal government, to regulate the practice of medicine.

Dr. Jack Lewin, of the California Medical Association, said the doctors 
group supported the Supreme Court decision, but said many physicians are 
still cautious about recommending marijuana as therapy.

"We still need a great deal more science to understand whether medical 
marijuana is as effective as some patients and physicians believe it to 
be," Lewin said. "This research has only just begun. We do not believe 
we're celebrating victory of medical marijuana here. There may be better 
agents for nausea relief and pain control."

Many patients who smoke marijuana for their symptoms say nothing else works 
as well.

Phil Alden, a Redwood City writer and medicinal marijuana advocate who 
suffers from AIDS, said he smokes pot three to four times every day to 
relieve nausea, improve his appetite and control AIDS-related pain in his 
hands and feet.

"I was very happy to hear about the decision," Alden said. "It enables 
doctors to not feel like they're going to be the victim of a witch hunt if 
they discuss medical marijuana with their patients."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart