Supreme Court Nixes Medical Marijuana

From the WebMD Archives

May 14, 2001 (Washington) -- The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that marijuana has no legal "medical" use, giving a major defeat to advocates of the drug's alleged benefits in alleviating symptoms of diseases including AIDS, cancer, and the eye disease glaucoma.

Writing for the high court, Justice Clarence Thomas said, "Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" for medical use.

The court noted that federal law holds that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use," since the drug is classified as a "schedule I" controlled substance, the most restrictive category. That categorization means the drug can legally only be cultivated and distributed through government-approved research projects.

The case involved the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, which distributed marijuana under California law to those whom a doctor said were in medical need. The cooperative was sued in 1998 by the federal government for violating U.S. law.

A federal district court ordered the cooperative to shut down, but the cooperative appealed and won a ruling from a circuit court that "medical need" would permit an exception to the Controlled Substances Act.

In 1996, California voters had enacted a ballot initiative to permit the cultivation and sale of marijuana for medical purposes.

Voters in seven other states -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington -- have passed similar initiatives. And last June, the governor of Hawaii signed into law a medical marijuana bill passed by the state's legislature.

Monday's ruling would force Congress to pass a new law in order legalize medical use of marijuana. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would reclassify the illicit leaf as a "schedule II" controlled substance, allowing its use for medical purposes. The bill would also allow doctors to prescribe or recommend marijuana, if it were permitted under state law.

But passing such a measure is unlikely under Republican control of Capitol Hill. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) praised the Supreme Court ruling. "The unanimous vote in this case reflects the overwhelming evidence that marijuana has been appropriately and lawfully declared to be a dangerous, mind-altering substance that should not be legalized for whatever contrived reason," he said. "The true aim of those who support the so-called medical marijuana movement, has been ... the legalization of all drugs. Terminally ill patients have been used as pawns in a cynical political game designed to weaken society's opposition to drug abuse."

Jeff Jones, executive director and co-founder of the Oakland co-op, tells WebMD, "We feel that the ruling is heavy handed and misguided and is not in tune with the current feeling of the population of America. It will probably ignite a change in this country which will bring down the medical cannabis law."

Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, tells WebMD, "patients will continue to be allowed to grow and use their own medical marijuana at home and be protected under those state laws." The marijuana project advocates the decriminalization of marijuana.

According to Thomas, state and local officials, not federal officials, make 99% of all marijuana arrests. "No matter what the federal government wants to do, they don't have the resources or the mandate to go into the states and start sniffing around under people's doors."

Thomas claims, "this ruling is really only going to affect anyone who is large scale enough to fall on the federal government's radar screen, which means medical marijuana distribution centers. It will be an inconvenience for patients to have to learn how to grow their own medical marijuana instead of going to their local distribution center to get it. But once they get their marijuana, then they don't need to worry about being arrested."

Marijuana advocates are worried that the high court's ruling may set back movements by additional states to decriminalize medical marijuana use. Jones says that the decision "might set back some of those efforts." According to Thomas, "we need to make sure that state legislatures don't mistakenly think that the Supreme Court ruling prevents them from passing these favorable medical marijuana laws."

Medical marijuana has gained passionate support among those who have gained relief from various ailments through the drug.

But definitive proof that pot has medical value has been elusive. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that medical marijuana had potential value as a treatment for pain, nausea, and wasting associated with HIV, but that smoked pot increased the risk for cancer.

A synthetic marijuana pill, Marinol, is available legally with a doctor's prescription. But marijuana advocates have complained that it is less effective than the smoked leaf.

Just-released results of a Mayo Clinic trial of Marinol found that it was ineffective in stimulating appetite among AIDS patients.