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Ruling Could Affect Thousands of Alaskans, Crusader Says


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Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Nicole Tsong, Anchorage Daily News
Published: November 30, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Anchorage Daily News 
Contact: [email protected] 

Medical marijuana users in Alaska are watching the case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could affect whether the federal government can prosecute them for smoking pot at home for medical reasons even though an Alaska law allows them to do so.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday from an attorney for two California women, who sued the federal government after federal agents confiscated marijuana plants from one of the women's yards. As in Alaska, California allows ill people to use marijuana for medical reasons with a doctor's recommendation.

The justices are considering whether federal agents can pursue people who use homegrown marijuana for medical reasons, with approval from their doctor and their state.

Alaskan Jim Welch, who is a registered user of medical marijuana and uses it to control muscle spasms resulting from multiple sclerosis, said he isn't worried about the case.

"I look at it as an opportunity to affirm the state's right to legislate this," he said. "At worst they're going to say the federal government has the right to intervene."

Welch, and former state legislator David Finkelstein who helped lead the successful 1998 campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Alaska, both believe the federal government will continue to focus their drug-fighting resources on bigger criminal cases, not people who use medical marijuana.

"Right now, the constant line you hear is marijuana is still illegal under federal law no matter what states do," Finkelstein said. "So we're basically left where we are."

Nearly 60 percent of Alaska voters approved the ballot initiative in 1998 that allows people to use marijuana for illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, chronic pain, seizures and muscle spasms with a doctor's recommendation. The law allows patients to grow limited amounts of marijuana. Shortly after the initiative was passed, state lawmakers curbed components of the new law, requiring users to register with the state although the original initiative made the registry optional. It also limited possession of marijuana to one ounce, and six marijuana plants. The initiative allowed patients to seek more.

The state has 182 registered medical marijuana users on its confidential list, and in total has issued 524 registrations since the inception of the registry, according to the Division of Public Health's Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Finkelstein estimates there are thousands of medical marijuana users in Alaska, many of whom aren't registered because they can't find a doctor to give the recommendation or don't want to register with the state. The registration is intended to protect users from arrest.

He said the Supreme Court case doesn't resolve other issues, such as buying marijuana or seeds, which is illegal.

The Supreme Court is not expected to make a decision for months. If the court comes down on the side of medical marijuana users, it could help users in Alaska with issues such as obtaining marijuana, Finkelstein said. If the justices side with the federal government, it will give proponents an answer on whether prosecutors can go after them.

But Finkelstein said he does not know of any case in Alaska where the federal government has prosecuted a medical marijuana user under federal law.

Instead, he thinks the case "shows how the medical marijuana issue has risen in public awareness," he said. "It's become a symbolic issue on states rights versus federal drug law."

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