Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, November 28, 2004 - Page A - 1
Copyright: 2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact: [email protected]
Two Northern California women who say medical marijuana is their only
shield from a life of agony take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday in a clash between federal power to regulate drug use and a
state's authority to determine medical care for its residents.
It is a case of unusual alliances, with some prominent conservative
organizations siding with the patients on the issue of states' rights
and limited federal powers. A ruling is due by the end of June.
This will be the court's first look at medical marijuana since 2001,
when the justices upheld the federal shutdown of an Oakland pot
dispensary and found no exemption in federal drug laws for claims of
medical necessity. The case appears to represent advocates' last hope of
winning legal protection from the federal crackdown that began in 1996,
when Californians approved the nation's first law allowing patients to
use marijuana with a doctor's approval.
Similar laws have been passed since then in nine other states:
Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Vermont and
Montana. But federal law since 1970 has classified marijuana as a
dangerous drug with no legitimate use and has prohibited possession,
cultivation and distribution.
The Bush administration has enforced the law aggressively in California,
with a series of raids and criminal prosecutions. The question before
the court is whether individual patients -- and, possibly, some of their
suppliers -- are immune from federal enforcement.
The argument goes like this: The Constitution authorizes Congress to
regulate interstate commerce. But no interstate commerce is involved
when patients, acting legally under state law, use marijuana that was
grown within the state and supplied without charge.
The counterargument, by the government and its allies, is that all
illicit drug use affects interstate commerce. Even freely supplied
marijuana boosts the demand for the drug, reduces the overall supply and
may affect the price, the government says; in addition, pot looks the
same whether it's grown locally or shipped between states.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor
of the patients last December, saying their use of marijuana was
noncommercial and was beyond the power of Congress to prohibit. The
court also told federal judges to decide whether the ruling -- if it
survives Supreme Court review -- would protect a marijuana cooperative
in Oakland, which was closed by a government lawsuit, and another in
Santa Cruz, which was raided by federal agents.
One of the plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court, Angel Raich
of Oakland, obtains marijuana from two anonymous suppliers and uses it
every two hours to ward off pain and loss of appetite from a brain
tumor, seizure disorder and other debilitating conditions. Co-plaintiff
Diane Monson of Oroville (Butte County) takes marijuana to combat back
pain and muscle spasms and grew her own plants until federal agents
seized them in 2002. Both have doctors' recommendations and say they
tried all available legal medicines without success.
Their hopes depend on swaying one or more of the court's conservative
justices, who, under the banner of federalism, have issued a series of
rulings since 1995 limiting the federal government's power over the
states. Two rulings have overturned federal laws -- one that banned gun
possession near schools, another that allowed victims of rape and
domestic violence to sue in federal court -- on the grounds that they
did not affect interstate commerce.
To that end, lawyers for Raich and Monson have enlisted major
conservative and libertarian groups to woo the justices on states'
In one court filing, the Cato Institute argued that the power-sharing
agreement made by the original 13 states in ratifying the Constitution
"is dishonored when citizens in great physical pain are deprived of
available medical treatment by a remote sovereign on the far side of the
"Federalism ... allows for experimentation at the state level,''
declared the Institute for Justice, another conservative-leaning
libertarian organization, whose brief called for a return to limits
imposed by courts in the 1930s on federal authority to regulate in-state
On the other side, the government's supporters include one group,
Community Rights Counsel, usually associated with liberal causes such as
environmental protection. Its brief urged the court to preserve federal
"legislative flexibility to address national concerns'' such as drug
Another hurdle for Raich and Monson is the fact that they are asking the
court to grant a partial exemption to the government-declared war on
drugs for states with medical marijuana laws. This would be in open
defiance of Congress, which has repeatedly declared that marijuana has
no medical value.
"The 'medical marijuana' concept is a Trojan horse tactic toward the
goal of legalization,'' said the Drug Free America Foundation and other
anti-drug organizations in a filing in support of the federal
government's position. They said initiatives like California's
Proposition 215 promote "medicine by popular vote.''
A brief by seven Republican members of Congress said exempting medical
patients from federal marijuana laws would make their states "a haven
for drug traffickers'' and return the nation to "the 19th-century age of
quack medicine.'' The Justice Department, in its written arguments,
warned that any exemption for in-state possession and distribution would
create a new class of drug manufacturers and pharmacies immune from
Medical marijuana advocates and their allies responded indignantly.
"Just because Congress says it does not make it so,'' said the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, referring to
congressional findings on the dangerousness and uselessness of
marijuana. "The chronically ill in California are the casualties in this
The patients also draw support from some medical organizations,
including the California Medical Association, which signed a brief
arguing that seriously ill people should make their own medical
decisions, in consultation with health professionals.
In this case, the brief said, "the alternative to which the government
would relegate them is ... a life of unremitting, unrelieved physical
The case is Ashcroft vs. Raich, 03-1454.
Federal power to control drug use vs. states' health care laws.
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