Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jun 2005
Source: Hartford Courant (CT)
Copyright: 2005 The Hartford Courant
Author: Rinker Buck, Courant Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Cited: Gonzales v. Raich ( )
Cited: Marijuana Policy Project ( )
Bookmark: (Cannabis -. Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Angel Raich)


U.S. Supreme Court Delivers Setback for Medical Marijuana

In a decision that will probably shed more confusion than light on the
increasing popularity of marijuana for medical purposes, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled Monday that state laws permitting the drug's
limited use do not protect individuals from federal

The decision was widely interpreted as a defeat for marijuana
proponents who waged efforts in 10 states over the past decade to
allow the drug's use for relief in a variety of illnesses, from
glaucoma to severe reactions to chemotherapy. But many of those same
proponents say that marijuana use is now so widespread, especially in
California, that federal enforcement efforts will be token at best.

The Supreme Court case involved two seriously ill California women,
Angel Raich and Diane Monson, who use marijuana under California's
liberalized medical marijuana law. Passed in 1996, the law allows
state residents to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs
with a doctor's recommendation. Nine other states, including Oregon,
Colorado, Vermont and Maine, have similar laws on their books.

But the Bush administration has consistently argued that these state
laws violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. Through several
appeals, it defended the federal government's right to raid Monson's
home and seize her marijuana plants. Monday's decision, without
directly addressing the legality of the new state laws, upheld the
federal government's right to prosecute individuals or the large
marijuana dispensing industry that has evolved over the past several

The ruling immediately threw the medical marijuana practices in the 10
states into disarray.

Oregon, with 10,696 patients registered under its 1999 law, announced
on Monday that it was temporarily halting the issuance of new medical
marijuana registration cards while awaiting word from its state
attorney general on how to interpret the Supreme Court decision.
Colorado, which has 668 residents registered in its state program, has
also asked its state attorney general for a legal opinion.

In Connecticut, the state Senate passed a bill Saturday approving the
use of medical marijuana, but passage in the house is now considered

"I think the Supreme Court's decision today will hamper the state's
effort to pass a medical marijuana bill," said Christopher Morano,
chief state's attorney. "In light of the ruling, any bill that the
state might pass would be largely symbolic."

But practical enforcement of the court ruling is considered especially
problematic in California, which collects no statewide data on the
number of its medical marijuana users but where many experts estimate
the figure at 200,000. Under California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act,
medical users or their "caregivers" are allowed to possess up to half
a pound of marijuana or grow up to six mature plants for their medical

Medical marijuana users who do not grow their own plants are allowed
to obtain the drug from growers who have evolved into a system of
openly operated "distribution clubs" or dispensaries. The Bay Area in
northern California is believed by advocates to have at least 60 such
clubs and networks legally distributing marijuana for medical
purposes. Reform advocates concede that the flourishing commercial
trade in "medical marijuana" invited abuse by recreational users.

Criminal lawyers and pro-marijuana advocates now widely expect a
crackdown on these clubs, while saying that private users who either
grow or quietly obtain their marijuana will remain unaffected, simply
because federal drug-enforcement agents will not be able to catch up
with so many users.

"It's a chilling effect, a big chilling effect. My phone has been
ringing off the hook all day by clients who are terrified about what
this means for them," said Los Angeles lawyer Eric D. Shevin, a
criminal defense attorney who specializes in both criminal and medical
marijuana law. "An individual who is growing marijuana for their own
medical use, or even their own nonmedical use, will probably not be
affected, but I see the feds definitely prosecuting the clubs. The
people operating these dispensaries, which under California law were
being run as completely above-ground legal establishments, will now be
forced underground. And it's huge, because for every medical marijuana
patient obtaining marijuana from the clubs, there were at least two
clubs operating underground. So the chill will stop the clubs, but
it's not going to stop the sale of marijuana at all."

Shevin and many other experts on medical marijuana point out that less
than 1 percent of all arrests for drug possession and sale are made by
federal authorities. There simply will never be enough federal agents
to enforce the federal laws, especially in states where new medical
marijuana statutes protect a large class of users, they say.

"What this ruling does is maintain the status quo," said Bruce Merkin,
the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project in
Washington, D.C., one of the country's largest marijuana reform
groups. "The Supreme Court has simply said that people protected under
state laws can be prosecuted by federal authorities, but the state and
local protections remain intact. Nothing really changes except that
medical marijuana users now face the remote chance that federal agents
and prosecutors will have time to prosecute a relative handful of
legitimate users."

Proponents of medical marijuana also point out that survey after
survey has shown that most Americans support the medical uses of
marijuana and may not be receptive to a harsh crackdown by federal

Merkin pointed out that one poll in President Bush's home state last
fall, The Scripps Howard Texas Poll, found that 75 percent of
residents in the Lone Star State favored a bill in the state
legislature to use marijuana to treat symptoms of cancer and other
serious illnesses. Among the sample of 900 Texans, 67 percent of
Republicans favored medical marijuana.

"These are not exactly latte-sipping liberals with a permissive
attitude on drug use," Merkin said. "When Republicans from George
Bush's own state of Texas express by a margin like that their support
for medical uses of marijuana, you know that this is not exactly a
case of the conservative bloc universally in favor of a policy."

The 6-3 decision to side with federal authority over states' rights
was supported by Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David
H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Antonin Scalia,
who wrote that he agreed with the result, though not the majority's
reasoning. Sandra Day O'Connor, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas
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