Supreme Court Ponders Medical Marijuana Case
Patients Say Federal Government Oversteps Authority in Raids
Nov. 29, 2004 -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a case that will determine whether federal drug officials can crack down on patients who grow and smoke marijuana even in states where the law allows its medical use.
The case centers on just two patients in California, one of 10 states with laws allowing patients to use marijuana under a doctor's supervision to treat the symptoms of chronic health problems. But the court's ruling is likely to have implications across the nation, say activists who vow to press ahead with more legalization efforts.
Attorneys for one patient, Diane Monson, argued that agents acted illegally in August 2002 when they seized six marijuana plants she cultivated under California's medical marijuana law. Monson's doctor has said that he recommended she smoke the drug because all other alternatives failed to help chronic severe back pain and spasms caused by a degenerative spine disease.
A second patient, Angel McClary Raich, also joined with two anonymous growers in suing the government to protect her access to medical marijuana. Raich said in court papers that marijuana has been "a miracle" in easing nausea, vomiting, and weight loss caused by the chemotherapy she receives to treat a brain tumor.
The patients' lawyers faced off with attorneys from the Bush administration over whether federal agents have the authority to raid the patients' personal marijuana supplies. Federal law bars the sale or use of marijuana in nearly all cases, though the patients and their advocates maintain that the government's jurisdiction is limited to illegal interstate drug sales and does not include private, noncommercial use allowed under state law.
Raich and Monson are like thousands of patients who say that marijuana helps them ease difficult symptoms and side effects that traditional drugs can't treat.
A 1999 Institute of Medicine report concluded that marijuana's active components are potentially effective in treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and helping AIDS and cancer patients gain weight by stimulating the appetite. The drug has also been shown to reduce eye pressure in glaucoma patients and ease some forms of chronic pain. But the Institute of Medicine report does not support using marijuana for glaucoma.
"There is no doubt that marijuana does reduce pain. The big question is whether marijuana is better than other drugs," says Steven Childers, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at Wake Forest University who was a member of the panel that authored the report.
The report also stressed that smoking was not a safe or effective way to administer marijuana because it is carcinogenic and cannot deliver a consistent dose of marijuana's active ingredients. Childers added that most doctors he knows support allowing terminally ill patients to use marijuana, since the benefits of the drug are likely to outweigh the risks.