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Supreme Court Rules Against Protection for Medical Pot By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday June 07, 2005

In a setback for medical marijuana users, on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a seriously ill Oakland woman seeking to grow and use marijuana without fear of federal raids. 

The 6-3 ruling held that federal authorities may prosecute people who have a doctor’s permission to grow and consume marijuana. The court found that state laws legalizing medical marijuana, such as California’s, do not offer protection to users from the federal ban on the drug.  

The ruling does not overturn California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which legalized medical marijuana in the state. It does, however, uphold the conflict between state and federal law that leaves Californians under the threat of arrest under federal law when they grow or use marijuana as a medicine.  

“I’m a little bit stunned with the decision,” said Angel Raich, 39, of Oakland, who along with Diane Monson of Oroville took the case to the high court. “People aren’t going to stop using their medicine just because the Supreme Court ruled against them.” 

In 2002, DEA agents seized and destroyed Monson’s six marijuana plants. 

Raich, who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, has chronic pain and a wasting syndrome that requires her to eat up to 3,000 calories a day. She grows her own marijuana, which she said relieves her pain and enables her to eat. 

While the ruling only directly applies to the small number of residents who grow and consume their own medical marijuana, it could have ramifications for medical marijuana dispensaries, where most licensed patients in the state receive their marijuana. The dispensaries, which are not specifically mentioned in the state law, have historically been subject to raids from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. 

Don Duncan, who runs one of Berkeley’s three licensed dispensaries, said the DEA had ceased raiding collectives in the past year while the Raich case was being litigated in the courts. He feared the agency might now feel emboldened by the ruling. 

“I hope the federal government doesn’t misinterpret this ruling as a cue for stepped-up enforcement,” he said. 

In a prepared statement the Bush administration’s drug czar John Walters said, “Today’s decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue....We have a responsibility as a civilized society to ensure that the medicine Americans receive from their doctors is effective, safe and free from the pro-drug politics that are being promoted in America under the guise of medicine.” 

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer criticized the ruling, saying that, “Taking medicine on the recommendation of a doctor for a legitimate illness should not be a crime.” 

Writing for the court majority, Justice John Paul Stevens held that Congress’s power to regulate commerce between states included the authority to ban marijuana that was grown and consumed within one state. Joining Stevens in the majority were justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Scalia and Souter. 

The decision overturns a 2003 ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that had been appealed by the Bush administration.  

Raich’s attorneys said they would return to the Ninth Circuit to argue that the federal government’s ban on growing medical marijuana violated Raich’s constitutional rights under the constitution’s due process clause. 

Raich said she would also lobby Congress to support a bill scheduled for a floor vote next week that would bar the U.S. Justice Department from conducting raids in states that have medical marijuana laws on the books. The bill has previously failed to come close to garnering the 218 votes needed for passage. 

California’s medical marijuana law allows residents to grow and use marijuana with a doctor’s permission. Since California’s law passed in 1996, voters in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont have passed similar legislation protecting medical marijuana users and growers from prosecution from state and local authorities. 

In dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor held that states should retain authority over “core police powers.” 

“Relying on Congress’s abstract assertions, the court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use,” she wrote. “This overreaching stifles an express choice by some states concerned for the lives and liberties of their people to regulate medical marijuana differently.” 

Justice William Rehnquist joined O’Connor in her dissent. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote his own dissenting opinion. 

Recently, pharmaceutical companies have offered alternatives to medical cannabis. Raich said the most widely used drug Marinol, a synthetic form of THC, made her ill. A more promising drug, Sativex, which is a liquid form of marijuana, has been approved in Canada, but not yet in the United States.