Pubdate: Mon, 29 Nov 2004
Source: Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA)
Copyright: 2004 New England Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Gail Gibson, The Baltimore Sun
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Tough-on-crime Alabama could never be accused of going easy on
marijuana users. State law allows people convicted three times on
simple possession charges to face a sentence of 15 years to life. Any
defense claims of medicinal  use are flatly rejected.

But with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear arguments today in a
California case that medical marijuana advocates view as a critical
test for their cause, they have found an unlikely ally in Alabama and
its equally resolute argument  that the federal government should not
meddle in state laws. "We take this stuff seriously, and we happen to
believe as a matter of [drug] policy that the Californians are wrong,
and the feds are right," Kevin C. Newsom, Ala-bama's solicitor
general, said in a recent interview. "But we're here to articulate the
state's long-term interest -- and the state's long-term interest is in
Congress' powers being maintained within appropriate

And so Alabama forged an un-likely legal alliance.

The state filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of two
California women, Angel McClary Raich and Diane Monson, who won a
court injunction last year blocking the federal government from
prosecuting individuals who use, grow or possess marijuana for medical
reasons in accordance with California's 1996 ballot initiative, the
Compas-sionate Use Act.

In its decision from last Dece-mber, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals -- which gave conservative-leaning states
such as Alabama fits  with an earlier decision that the phrase "under
God" should be removed from the  Pledge of Allegiance -- said federal
interstate commerce laws should not apply  if the drug was not sold,
transported across state lines or used for nonmedicinal reasons.

The federal government appealed.

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, acting Solicitor General Paul
D. Clement argued that carving out a loophole for medical marijuana in
drug policy enforcement "undermines Con-gress' intent to regulate the
drug market to protect public health and safety." "Marijuana that is
grown, distributed and then possessed for personal 'medical'
consumption can also, at any step, be sold or distributed for others,"
  he said. How the Supreme Court rules in Ashcroft v. Raich could have
broad implications for the future of the medical use of marijuana.

Ten years ago,  California was the first state to allow sick patients
to medicate themselves  with marijuana. Eleven other states now have
similar laws -- including Montana,  where voters adopted a medical
marijuana law by a wide margin in this month's elections as they also
voted to re-elect President Bush and ban gay marriage. Voters in two
cities -- Ann Arbor, Mich., and Columbia, Mo. -- also adopted medical
marijuana provisions this month.

In Ann Arbor, the measure was called into question almost immediately
after the city attorney said state and federal  laws banning all
marijuana use would continue to control. A similar clash between local
and federal control is at the core of the case before the Supreme
Court. And that is where Alabama enters the debate, firmly on  the
side of local control.

"Whether California and the other compassionate-use states are
'courageous' -- or instead profoundly misguided -- is not the point,"
Alabama Attorney Gen-eral Troy King wrote in his friend of the court
brief, which was joined by attorneys general from two other Southern
states, Loui-siana and Mississippi. "While [the three] states may not
see eye to eye with some of their neighbors concerning the wisdom of
decriminalizing marijuana possession and use in certain  instances,
they support their neighbors' prerogative in our federalist system to
serve as 'laboratories for experimentation,' " King said in his brief,
quoting a  leading Supreme Court decision from 1995 on states' rights.
Randy Barnett, a Boston Uni-versity law professor and former Cook
County, Ill., prosecutor, will argue Raich's case before the court.

In an interview, he acknowledged the unlikely bedfellows of
conservative states like Alabama and left-leaning pro-marijuana groups
also backing his side. "This case stands for the proposition that
federalism is not just for conservatives," Barnett said. "It shows the
principled nature of the claim we're making." The court in recent
years has challenged the federal government's centralized authority in
a number of cases by striking down congressional acts it views as
intruding on what should be the realm of the states.

In the 1995 case cited in  Alabama's filing, the court rejected a
federal law that prohibited possessing a  gun near a school be-cause
the crime had no effect on interstate commerce. In the court's only
previous ruling on medical marijuana three years ago, it said that
federal drug laws outlawing marijuana make no exceptions for
dispensing the drug for medical use and rejected the appeals of an
Oakland, Calif., cannabis cooperative that the federal government had
sued to shut down.
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