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Supreme Court Rules Against Medical Marijuana

Justices Say Federal Government Can Prosecute in States That Have Legalized Medical Marijuana
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WebMD Health News

June 6, 2005 -- The federal government may prosecute patients who use marijuana even in states with laws allowing medicinal use of the drug, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a 6-3 decision, justices supported the Bush administration argument that the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) trumps state laws when it comes to regulating controlled substances, even though some patients may suffer without the drug. "The CSA is a valid exercise of federal power, even as applied to the troubling facts of this case," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

The case, known as Ashcroft v. Raich, was one of the most closely watched Supreme Court suits this year. A ruling against the federal government would have had far-reaching legal implications but also would have been a major blow to aggressive White House antimarijuana policies.

What the case won't do is settle the question of whether marijuana is an effective medicine at all, or if so, whether voters or even state legislatures should be allowed to take on medical treatment questions usually reserved for the FDA.

The suit came after two California patients, Diane Monson and Angel Raich, went to court to prevent federal officials from arresting them for using marijuana under the state's 1996 law allowing medical use. A 2003 federal appeals court ruling in the patients' favor was quickly appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case last November.

White House Reaction

The Bush administration declared the ruling a victory Monday. White House officials have long argued that allowing states to classify marijuana as medicine undermines clear antidrug messages aimed at youth.

"Today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue," says John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"Smoking illegal drugs may make some people 'feel better.' However, civilized societies and modern day medical practices differentiate between inebriation and the safe, supervised delivery of proven medicine by legitimate doctors," Walters says, in a statement.

Supporters of medical marijuana say the decision changes little in the 10 states that already allow qualified patients to use marijuana under a doctor's supervision. Another state, Maryland, allows defendants to use medical necessity as a court defense.

Just 16 federal raids on medical marijuana growers have taken place since 1996, all of them on large growing operations of 500 to 1,000 plants, according the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-medical marijuana group.

"Legally nothing is different today than before Raich. The million dollar question is whether the fed government is going to all the sudden change the way it does business and start going after these individual sick people and their caregivers," said Dan Abrahamson, the group's director of legal affairs.

Several states, including Alabama, New Mexico, Connecticut, and Wisconsin are considering new medical marijuana exemptions. Monday's ruling could cause those states to think twice before going against federal drug policy backed by a fresh Supreme Court decision upholding it.

"I think there might be a potential chilling effect for awhile," Abrahamson says.

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