Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jun 2005
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2005 The New York Times Company
Author: Dean E. Murphy
Note: Mindy Sink contributed reporting from Denver for this article.
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance
Cited: Drug Enforcement Administration
Cited: Drug Free America Foundation
Cited: Californians for Drug Free Youth
Cited: Oregon Medical Marijuana Program
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Bryan Epis)


OAKLAND, Calif. - Advocates of medicinal uses of marijuana suffered a legal 
setback on Monday in the United States Supreme Court, but there was little 
panic or despair amid the tears of disappointment.

"Just because we lost this little battle does not mean that the war is 
over," Angel McClary Raich, one of the marijuana users whose case was 
before the Supreme Court, said at a news conference here. She added: "We're 
just sick. We're not criminals."

Though some advocates worried that the ruling might embolden opponents of 
medical marijuana, as a practical matter, there are very few federal 
prosecutions of medical marijuana users nationwide.

An unpublished survey this year by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that 
advocates the legalization of medical marijuana, found that there were 
fewer than 20 federal prosecutions of medical marijuana users or growers 
since 1996, when California passed the first medical marijuana law, said 
Daniel N. Abrahamson, the group's director of legal affairs in Oakland.

All but a handful of the prosecutions, Mr. Abrahamson said, involved cases 
in which the users were accused of growing up to 1,000 plants or more. 
"They are selectively choosing big-fish cases, and are not sending a 
message to the average patient growing a few plants in the backyard," Mr. 
Abrahamson said.

William L. Grant, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said 
that the emphasis had been to focus on "major trafficking organizations and 
attempt to disrupt and dismantle them from top to bottom, including their 
financial networks."

Asked about the effect of the Supreme Court ruling on the federal 
enforcement, Mr. Grant said, "Our mission is going to remain the same."

In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices ruled that the federal authorities might 
prosecute sick people who used marijuana under their doctors' supervision, 
even in states that allowed the medicinal uses. Eleven states have state 
laws allowing some uses of medicinal marijuana, even though federal law 
outlaws the drug.

Opponents of the medical marijuana laws said they were hopeful that the 
court ruling would put a damper on efforts by advocacy groups to get 
similar laws passed in other states. Calvina Fay, executive director of the 
Drug Free America Foundation, said the laws were dangerous because they 
treated marijuana like drugs approved for use by the federal government.

"We don't want truly sick and dying people to be scammed into thinking they 
are being medically treated by smoking pot," Ms. Fay said. "We believe that 
people who are truly sick need good, legitimate medicine."

John Redman, director of Californians for Drug Free Youth, a drug abuse 
prevention group based in San Diego, said marijuana rivaled alcohol as a 
source of problems among young people who sought substance abuse treatment. 
He said the medical marijuana dispensaries across the state - there are an 
estimated 80 of them in California - were rife with problems.

"You have unfettered access to a potentially harmful drug, and that is a 
problem," Mr. Redman said.

Reaction among the state authorities to the court ruling was mostly muted.

The authorities in Oregon stopped issuing marijuana registration cards for 
new patients, though the 10,000 patients already registered with the state 
can still receive marijuana under state law with a doctor's recommendation.

"We need to proceed cautiously until we understand the ramifications of 
this ruling," Dr. Grant Higginson, who oversees the Oregon Medical 
Marijuana Program, said in a statement. Oregon officials described the move 
as temporary, and said that the state attorney general had been asked to 
issue an opinion as guidance.

The attorney general in Montana, Mike McGrath, said that he stood by that 
state's medical marijuana law and that the federal authorities "will be on 
their own" if they tried to prosecute patients registered under the state law.

"I think it's going to be up to the Bush administration to make a decision 
as to how it's going to deal with theses cases as a matter of policy," Mr. 
McGrath, a Democrat, said.

Bill Lockyer, the California attorney general, said the ruling left 
patients vulnerable to federal prosecution and illustrated "the vast 
philosophical difference 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."

California was the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for 
medicinal purposes, when voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate 
Use Initiative, in 1996. The state is believed to have the vast majority of 
the estimated 115,000 registered medical marijuana users nationwide.

"There is something very wrong with a federal law that treats medical 
marijuana the same as heroin," Mr. Lockyer, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Ms. Raich, who suffers from multiple illnesses, including chronic wasting 
syndrome, said she believed that she was alive because of her medicinal use 
of marijuana. At a tearful news conference, she said that she intended to 
continue using the drug, which she takes every two hours, including when 
she has surgery.

"We are not being disobedient," she said. "We are just using this medicine 
because it saves our lives."

Other users said they were frightened by the prospect of federal agents' 
arriving at their doorstep and might give it up.

Dana May, 47, a father of three in Aurora, Colo., has already had his home 
raided by state and federal officials for growing marijuana for himself and 
two other people with medical conditions. Mr. May, who has been on 
disability for 10 years because of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, described 
his pain as nightmarish. But his fear of the authorities, he said, would 
put an end to his marijuana growing.

"It's sad," Mr. May said. "The first thing that went through my mind when I 
heard about the ruling was, 'I hope I don't get suicidal again.' "

In at least one case in California, the ruling could make the difference 
between freedom and imprisonment. Bryan J. Epis was freed from prison last 
year by a federal appeals court after serving two years of a 10-year 
sentence for growing marijuana plants for medicinal purposes at his home in 

Mr. Epis, 38, was freed pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. He 
will now have to go back to court and request a permanent reduction in his 

"Yeah, I'm nervous," Mr. Epis said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake