Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Author: Kim Cobb
Published: October 18, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle
Contact: [email protected]
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for physicians to recommend marijuana as part of a patient's treatment, but its decision Tuesday offers no protection for growers and sellers of "medical marijuana."
The court decision not to take up the appeal of a federal court ruling on the issue was hailed by medical marijuana proponents as an important step for the nine states that have passed medical marijuana laws. It is seen as an encouragement to a handful of other states to pass similar laws.
But the Supreme Court has yet to address the bottom-line question of whether the otherwise illegal drug can be used legally in the course of bona fide medical treatment. Any state that passes medical marijuana legislation still can expect to wade into an unresolved legal quagmire.
"Of course it's a victory," said California activist Valerie Corral. "But one would be foolhardy to presume ... we're no longer targets of the federal government."
By refusing to intervene in Walters v. Conant last week, the high court let stand a unanimous 9th Circuit of Appeals decision that found physicians should be able to speak to their patients about marijuana without fear of government retribution. But the San Francisco-based appellate court also ruled that physicians can be punished if they help their patients obtain marijuana.
California has been a flash point for medical marijuana litigation since its voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996. Legal observers say the law is a target for federal challenge because it is so broadly written, legalizing the production and transport of marijuana for medical purposes.
Eight other states have passed laws either legalizing or reducing the penalties for people using marijuana on the advice of a physician: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Some of the states spell out minimum amounts of marijuana that patients can possess. Some require that patients enroll in a state registry to legally use the drug.
New Mexico, New York, Connecticut and Vermont are cited as states which have come closest to passing their own medical marijuana laws in recent legislative sessions. Supporters in all four states say they are encouraged by bipartisan support for the issue.
Vince Marrone, a lobbyist for New Yorkers for Compassionate Care, said variations on a medical marijuana bill have been introduced in the state assembly for several years. But last year, the bill started to move rapidly through committees.
The bill made it to the floor, but couldn't obtain a vote without a Senate sponsor -- something Marrone thinks they can achieve after Tuesday's Supreme Court decision.
"The health committee chairman in the Senate told me one of his big issues was the federal government's role," Marrone said. "I can now at least take the (federal threat against) doctors off the table."
The last time the Supreme Court did agree to take on a medical marijuana issue, it was a blow to proponents. Justices ruled in May 2001 that "buyers clubs" organized for medical marijuana users in California are illegal.
Corral's Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (also known as WAMM) in Santa Cruz, Calif., made headlines in 2002 when federal agents raided its operation and seized the marijuana plants they were growing on premises. Her group's lawsuit against the federal government is one of several winding its way through the courts, with the potential to force a direct examination of medical marijuana by the Supreme Court.
Attorney Gerald Uelman, one of Corral's attorneys in the WAMM lawsuit, said that he expects the federal government to drop its attempts to coerce physicians as a result of Tuesday's decision.
"But we haven't seen any decline in Drug Enforcement Agency activity in enforcing the prohibition of marijuana in California," Uelmen said. "There have been several raids since WAMM, and it doesn't look like they're backing off at all."
The Office of National Drug Control Policy was quick to respond to the high court's decision on Walters v. Conant, stressing that the federal law regarding marijuana has not changed.
"Yesterday's Supreme Court decision revolves around doctor-patient practices, not the efficacy of smoked marijuana as medicine," read the agency's statement.
"We have in place rigorous and proven processes for determining the safety and efficacy of medicines. The cultivation and trafficking of marijuana remains a federal offense."
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