Ruling puts worry into medical marijuana users

The Associated Press
Wednesday May 16, 2001

OAKLAND — Yvonne Westbrook recalls when getting relief from the symptoms of multiple sclerosis meant venturing into seedy parks to buy bags of marijuana from drug dealers. 

So she worries that the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Monday could mean a return of those days. “Now they’ve opened us up to the street and all the perils involved,” she said. 

The high court ruled 8-0 on Monday there is no exception in federal anti-drug laws for patients to use marijuana to ease their pain from cancer, AIDS or other illnesses. 

Westbrook is fearful the ruling could mean the end for the dozens of distribution clubs that sprang up after California passed Proposition 215, the state law allowing people to grow and possess medical marijuana. 

“With the clubs you’re able to go to a clean, safe, secure environment,” she said. On the street, “you never know what you’re going to get. You never know who’s lurking behind the bush to jump you.” 

Voters in Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have approved ballot initiatives allowing the use of medical marijuana.  

In Hawaii, the Legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year. 

Patients like Westbrook could still use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allow it, legal experts said in several states affected by the ruling.  

But it would be more difficult to obtain because distribution violates federal law. 

Dr. Robert Killian of Seattle, the primary backer of the Washington’s successful 1998 marijuana initiative, said the ruling was a blow to marijuana distribution networks, which hoped to be able to provide pot to patients who instead must grow their own or buy it illegally. 

“They were hoping for some validation,” Killian said. “They are and always have been operating extralegally.” 

But JoAnna McKee, of the Seattle-based Green Cross Patient Co-op, said the network would continue to operate. 

“We are a network of patients who help other patients – all with notes from our doctors,” she said. “If you’re starving to death, and I have food, it’s my moral obligation to help you get food. 

“The Supreme Court has been wrong before. It used to be against the law to teach black people to read and write – they were wrong about that,” she said. 

In Alaska, 191 people have registered to use the drug as medicine, and officials there said they expect them to simply grow their own. 

“The ruling is clearly about the distribution of marijuana, not the possession of marijuana,” said David Finkelstein, a former state legislator who led the Alaska petition drive to legalize medicinal marijuana use. 

“Basically what it says is that cannabis clubs can’t be opened up in Alaska,” Finkelstein said in a telephone interview.  

Some Alaskans who registered with the state to use medical marijuana don’t want to grow it, or can’t grow it, Finkelstein said. But “for most patients, it’s working well.” 

But in Arizona, officials said that while two voter-approved measures legalized marijuana for medical use under state law, doctors have not been prescribing it because doing so would violate a federal law – and now they are even more unlikely to do so. 

”(The court’s ruling) confirms that distribution, even for medical purposes, would violate federal law,” said Pati Urias, spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general’s office. Robert Raich, an attorney who represented the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, one of six marijuana distributors challenged by the federal government, said the decision “is not the end of the line by any means.” 

Raich said the issue of medical necessity was just one of several legal arguments they are ready to make in the future in favor of cannabis distribution clubs. 

“We feel we have many other defenses left,” said Jeff Jones, executive director of the club.  

The club was prohibited from distributing pot but has remained open to issue identification cards to verified medical marijuana patients. 

Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman said the ruling would not change the way his office prosecutes drug crimes. In Mendocino, people are permitted up to six mature plants and 2 pounds of dry marijuana. 

“If the feds want to prosecute these people they can,” he said. “In California, the law has not changed one iota.” 

Julie Roche, one of the sponsors of Amendment 20 legalizing medical marijuana in Colorado, said the state’s law does not address distribution and how patients obtain the drug so the Supreme Court ruling should have no effect on it. 

“The law says people in Colorado can possess and use marijuana, and they will continue getting it as they got it before.  

I think the federal government will continue their war on drugs looking for large amounts. I do not expect a crackdown on patients,” Roche said. 

Joel Karlin, a spokesman for Coloradans Against Legalizing Marijuana, cheered the court decision, saying the narcotic in marijuana is already available in a tablet and will soon be available in a patch. 

Karlin added that people who obtain marijuana illegally run the risk of impurities, dosage regulation and adverse effects from smoking it.  

“It’s right that the Supreme Court ruled the way it did. I don’t think there is any good need for it.” 

But Westbrook, 48, who lives in an east San Francisco Bay suburb, says she uses marijuana for pain relief and to control the spasticity that is part of her disease. 

“It’s not about getting high. I’m too old for that. What it does is provide me with the necessary relief I need in order to live a functional life,” she said. 

On the Net: 

Supreme Court site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov 

Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative: http://www.rxcbc.org 

Marijuana Policy Project: http://www.mpp.org 

DEA: http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/agency/agency.htm