US Supreme Court Upholds Bankrupt Federal Law on Medical Marijuana - State Law Not Affected

WASHINGTON DC, May 14, 2001. In an 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's legal authority to forbid distribution of medical marijuana by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. However, contrary to the misrepresentations of medical marijuana opponents, the Court's ruling in no way invalidates Proposition 215 or other state medical marijuana laws, and it remains unclear how or whether the government will use it to crack down on medical cannabis clubs. The Court's ruling was narrow, addressed to the procedural question of whether the O.C.B.C. could be exempted from an injunction against marijuana distribution in cases of medical necessity. The Court unanimously ruled, "There is no medical necessity exemption to the Controlled Substance Act's prohibitions on manufacture and distribution of marijuana." The Court's decision, which was authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, effectively gave the federal government carte blanche to pursue distributors and growers, but not necessarily individual patients. In a footnote, Thomas suggested that the law might also ban possession by patients. However, a minority opinion by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Souter explicitly repudiated this view, emphasizing that the ruling was "narrow" and "limited," and that a necessity defense might well be applicable to seriously ill patients facing "extraordinary suffering." To the disappointment of medical cannabis advocates, the Court did not address the broader, constitutional questions raised in the defense brief: whether the federal law violates states' rights, the Fifth and Ninth Amendment rights of patients, or limitations of federal power under the interstate commerce clause. "Because the Court of Appeals did not address these claims, we decline to do so in the first instance," Justice Thomas explained. Defense attorneys are exploring whether these issues might be raised in further appeals. So far, the Supreme Court decision has had no evident impact on California's 50-plus cannabis clubs. Most have indicated they will continue operations so long as they are not forcibly prevented from doing so. However, there have been increased reports of surveillance by narcotics police, leading many to anticipate a crackdown by the feds. Most observers fear for the worst, since President Bush has appointed hard-core drug warriors to key positions. Attorney General John Ashcroft and DEA director-designate Rep. Asa Hutchinson both consistently supported draconian drug laws in the Congress, and Drug Czar-designate John Walters, a protege of ex-Drug Czar William Bennett, has long advocated tougher marijuana laws. Nonetheless, the administration has yet to reveal its hand on medical marijuana. At his DEA confirmation hearings, Rep. Hutchinson steered clear of committing himself to pursuing medical marijuana. Asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy whether "the federal government should make it a priority to prosecute people who are distributing marijuana to ill people," Hutchinson replied, "It is still illegal, it is harmful, and there's many potential dangers," but "as far as enforcement policy, that's something I'm going to work with the attorney general on." In a trial balloon, Time magazine rumored that Walters plans to propose that "the government should consider loosening federal rules so that doctors can prescribe or recommend marijuana for certain seriously ill patients." At the state level, most public officials acknowledge that the court's decision has no direct bearing on state or local medical marijuana enforcement. Nonetheless, some law enforcement officials have fallaciously cited the Supreme Court decision to justify arrests, claiming that federal law overrides Prop. 215. In fact, Article 3, Section 3.5 of the California constitution specifically prohibits state officials from refusing to enforce a state law on the basis that federal law or regulations prohibit its enforcement, unless a state appellate court rules otherwise. According to Attorney General Lockyer's spokesman for medical marijuana, David De Alba, the Court's ruling has "no direct impact" on Prop. 215. A few abuses have been reported in areas hostile to Prop. 215, where local narcotics deputies have wrongly told patients that Prop. 215 no longer applies. In a highly unusual move, Calaveras County Judge Douglas Mewhinney unexpectedly withdrew a plea agreement that would have let members of the Northern Lights Church patient collective grow marijuana for their members, on the grounds that he could not let them violate federal law. Defense attorney David Nick is seeking another judge in the case. The Court's decision has also prompted insurance companies to re-examine their policies regarding medical marijuana. A number of patients have heretofore been compensated for homeowners' claims for loss or theft of medical marijuana. However, State Farm Insurance announced it will no longer honor such claims. "It's clearly stated in the homeowners' policy that we will not pay for illegal activities," said a State Farm spokesman. The Supreme Court's ruling evoked criticism from newspapers around the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, New York Times and Boston Globe, which editorialized for reform of the federal laws. State Sen. John Vasconcellos, a sponsor of Prop. 215, denounced the Court for delivering what he described as "an infuriating, stupid" opinion contrary to science, the will of the people, personal freedom, and states' rights. O.C.B.C . director Jeff Jones likened the Court's decision to that in the pre-Civil-War Dred Scott case, which effectively legalized slavery throughout the U.S. That decision was later repudiated along with the moral principles it upheld following the Civil War. California NORML Coordinator Dale Gieringer denounced the Supreme Court for upholding "a bankrupt and unenforceable policy." "It would be a serious mistake for the federal government to try to close California's cannabis clubs, which provide a valuable service to their members and their communities," he warned. "As soon as one club is closed, others will open. Washington lacks the political and moral resources to stop the medical marijuana movement." Despite the Court decision, the legal battle of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative is far from over. The case is still in the stage of a preliminary injunction. OCBC attorney Robert Raich says he hopes to appeal other issues to the Ninth Circuit. "This isn't the Court's last ruling on medical cannabis," declares Raich, "It's the first." Text of Supreme Court Opinion Supreme Court hears Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative case (Mar. 28).