US Supreme Court Allows MDs to Recommend Marijuana

Washington DC, Oct. 15th 2003. In a major victory for Prop. 215, the Supreme Court let stand a Ninth Circuit ruling protecting doctors from punishment for recommending marijuana as medicine. The court turned down the administration’s request for a hearing to appeal an injunction by the U.S. District Court in San Francisco barring the government from punishing doctors who recommend marijuana by revoking their licenses to prescribe controlled substances or by other sanctions.

The case, Conant v. Walters (previously McCaffrey), was decided on freedom of speech grounds. The Ninth Circuit ruled that physicians have a "core First Amendment" right "to speak frankly and openly with their patients." However, the court’s decision does not allow doctors to aid and abet patients in procuring marijuana, for example, by referring them to a cannabis dispensary.

The court’s decision removed a major stumbling block to access for medical marijuana. Since the passage of Prop. 215, California NORML has received many complaints from seriously ill patients unable to get recommendations because their physicians feared federal punishment. Their fears were prompted by federal officials such as former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, who began threatening to punish doctors for recommending marijuana as soon as 215 was passed.

The threat might have proved fatal to Prop. 215 had it not been for the Conant lawsuit, brought by a group of doctors and patients led by the Lindesmith Center (now Drug Policy Alliance). Dan Abrahamson, a DPA attorney who helped bring the suit, said the Supreme Court’s ruling means that "medical marijuana laws at the state level are alive and well," and could be "a green light to other states that are considering medical marijuana laws."