Pubdate: Wed, 15 Oct 2003
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2003 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Claire Cooper, Bee Legal Affairs Writer


White House Bid To Punish Physicians Is Rejected

Deflecting what might have been a lethal blow to state medical marijuana 
laws, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down a seven-year effort by 
the White House to punish physicians who recommend the drug to their 
patients under California law.

The justices rejected without comment the federal government's appeal of 
lower court injunctions that have blocked it from threatening doctors with 
license revocation and other sanctions for advising pot use.

The lower court decisions were based on First Amendment free speech rights 
rather than a right to get or use marijuana -- issues that remain 
unresolved as states continue passing medical marijuana laws over the 
federal government's opposition.

Nine states now have laws similar to Proposition 215, California's 
Compassionate Use Act.

The federal-state standoff continues.

"The cultivation and trafficking of marijuana remains a federal offense," 
John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, said in a prepared statement.

He reminded public officials and medical professionals of their ongoing 
duty to "reduce the harms caused by marijuana."

Nevertheless, said Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Policy Litigation 
Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, "the cornerstone of the 
(federal) government's attack" on California's medical pot law was laid to 

"This is the case that involved whether that law would stand or fall," he 
said. "If (the Supreme Court) had taken the case and reversed (the lower 
court rulings), that would have been the end of Proposition 215."

"This is winning a case in the Supreme Court," exulted Valerie Corral, one 
of the six medical marijuana patients who joined a group of physicians as 
plaintiffs in the ACLU-sponsored case. "It's finally happening."

She predicted immediate benefits.

"Now patients will go to their doctors and talk about (marijuana), and if 
the doctor won't recommend it, the patient will find someone who will. This 
really moves us a step forward in gaining ... controls and regulations over 
the kind of medicine that patients will be receiving," she said.

Corral, founder of a Santa Cruz medical pot cooperative, has been at the 
center of an uphill battle to establish a toehold for legal marijuana in 
the federal courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an earlier Proposition 215 case that 
medical necessity is not a defense against federal prosecution of pot 
providers. Cases based on other patients' rights and states' rights legal 
theories have been rebuffed so far by the federal courts in California and 
are working their way toward the high court.

But by coincidence, the new Supreme Court decision came on the heels of 
another big victory for medical pot advocates.

On Sunday, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill setting state guidelines for 
medical pot use and providing for a state identification card for patients 
and their caregivers.

"Even if it's in fits and starts, these are two major breakthroughs," said 
state Sen. John John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, the bill's author.

The case that ended Tuesday began soon after passage of Proposition 215, 
when the Office of National Drug Control Policy threatened doctors with 
prosecution, license revocation and dismissal from Medicaid and other 
federal programs.

Doctors and patients sued in federal court in San Francisco and won 
injunctions that the government appealed.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a year ago that doctors could 
be punished only for aiding and abetting "the actual distribution and 
possession of marijuana" but not for recommending it.

"An integral component of the practice of medicine is the communication 
between a doctor and a patient. Physicians must be able to speak frankly 
and openly to patients," wrote 9th Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder of 

Dr. Jack Lewin, chief executive officer of the California Medical 
Association, said the importance of the Supreme Court decision was that it 
blocked "inappropriate intrusion into the sacredness of the 
patient/physician relationship by the (U.S.) Department of Justice."

But Lewin said it did not solve the whole dilemma for doctors.

"Marijuana needs to be de-politicized," he said. He called for broad 
scientific research -- not "politically motivated research" -- comparing 
marijuana with other options for pain relief and nausea control.

Until that happens, he said, it will be hard for doctors to evaluate 
whether to recommend marijuana.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman