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Medical Marijuana Fight Goes to Supreme Court

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March 28, 2001 (Washington) -- Can patients get access to marijuana to fight the ravages of disease, even though it's illegal to possess the drug under federal law? That question was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

At issue is whether so-called buyers' clubs have the right to provide pot to those who are seriously ill and suffering.

Several Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical.

"That's a vast expansion [of] any necessity defense I've ever heard of," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "It was kind of a blanket medical necessity," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in reference to an appellate decision supporting the marijuana users.

The current court battle began in California where, in 1996, voters authorized growing and possessing marijuana for medical use. That "compassionate use" justification put the state on a collision course with the federal government's antidrug laws. Eventually, the Justice Department filed a civil suit to shut down a buyers' club in Oakland, Calif., in 1998.

The Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, with some 8,000 members, countered that even though it might be technically against the law to distribute marijuana, doing so was essential to those who would otherwise die, go blind, or suffer severe pain.

Despite such reasoning, a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction to stop the buyers' clubs from growing or distributing medical pot. Later, however, an appellate court ruled that the lower court could consider medical necessity to modify its injunction. That has permitted a handful to acquire marijuana legally under tight guidelines.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Acting Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argued before the court that the FDA concluded that there is "insufficient reason to think [marijuana's] safe and effective."

In fact, a law passed by Congress in 1970 placed marijuana in the most restricted category for drugs.

If the buyers' club is ultimately shut down, people will resort to getting marijuana on the street, according to Gerald Uelmen, who handled the cooperative's case.

"We allow physicians to prescribe narcotic drugs, to even prescribe cocaine ... because we recognize there are some people who will get a medical benefit," he says.

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