SAN FRANCISCO — Cancer is eating away at Creighton Frost. His lymph glands, thyroid, larynx and much of the muscles on the right side of his body have been removed. Marijuana, he says, is his only comfort.
Frost used to get the drug from the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, a city-sanctioned club that openly challenges the federal government – but conforms to California law – by offering marijuana to people with a doctor’s recommendation.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday to review whether the club, and perhaps others in states that also have medical marijuana laws, can distribute the drug.
“I’m dying and falling apart a little bit at a time. I want some way to not have such a miserable death,” said Frost, whose illness forced him to quit leading horseback wilderness tours.
Frost, who lives in San Ramon, has been forced to get his marijuana illegally since August. That’s when the court ordered the club to cease operations at the request of the Clinton administration.
The high court is expected to hear the case next year.
Justice Department lawyers said more than two dozen organizations have been distributing marijuana for medical purposes in California, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. California first passed a medical marijuana law in 1996. Since then, eight other states have followed.
Medical marijuana laws also have been passed in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado. They too could be struck down, depending on how broadly the court considers the case, said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who unsuccessfully lobbied Attorney General Janet Reno to drop the Supreme Court challenge.
Jeff Jones, co-founder of the Oakland pot club, said the cooperative has handed out 4,000 identification cards to members who have obtained a doctor’s recommendation to smoke marijuana.
“We have faith when the Supreme Court hears this case that it will consider the needs of the patients who are suffering,” Jones said. “We hope that it vindicates Californians who have voted on allowing patients to have compassionate access to this medicine and that it vindicates the citizens in the states that have passed compassionate access laws.”
Generally, the state laws allow sick and dying patients with a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana by growing it themselves or obtaining it from a so-called “caregiver.” While the laws do not necessarily permit marijuana clubs, states have allowed them if their purpose is for sick and dying patients.
California, for example, has a hodgepodge of medical marijuana regulations. Some counties require identification cards to legally possess and smoke marijuana. The city of Oakland allows users to possess as much as six pounds, while Butte County allows growers to possess up to 2 pounds.
Just last week, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration approved a program allowing San Mateo County to give away government-grown marijuana to 60 AIDS patients as part of a first-of-its-kind study to assess the drug’s potential benefits.
For Frost and other ill patients using marijuana, they say it settles the stomach, builds weight and steadies spastic muscles. Users also speak of relief from PMS, glaucoma, itching, insomnia, arthritis, depression, childbirth and Attention Deficit Disorder.
The Justice Department, however, told the high court that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.”
Even so, it is unclear whether the nation’s high court will consider solely whether marijuana clubs violate federal law, or whether it will rule on the legality of medical marijuana laws in their entirety.
“You never know how far they will go in considering issues broadly or narrowly,” said Annette Carnegie, a lawyer for the Oakland club.
Jim Gonzalez, a lobbyist with Americans for Medical Rights, said a court decision allowing the pot clubs would give a huge boost to the medical marijuana movement. The group is funded by billionaire George Soros, who helped finance many of the nation’s medical marijuana initiatives.
“That would be the Supreme Court saying medical marijuana is OK,” Gonzalez said.
A contrary ruling, he predicted, only would bar the pot clubs – not the states’ medical marijuana laws. An appeals court decision allowing the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative to distribute the drug “threatens the government’s ability to enforce the federal drug laws,” the Justice Department told the high court. In August, the Supreme Court barred the California club from distributing marijuana while the government pursued its appeal.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco ruled for the government. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that “medical necessity” is a legal defense.
Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has recused himself from the case.
The case is U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 00-151.
On the Net:
For the appeals court ruling in U.S. vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 9th Circuit.