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Court to Hear Marijuana Case

Monson and her co-plaintiffs -- Angel McClary Raich, an Oakland woman who suffers from a variety of painful chronic disorders, and two people identified as John Doe One and John Doe Two, who give Raich pot free of charge -- argue that these recent cases favor them, because using small amounts of marijuana they grow for themselves, or passing it along for "compassionate" reasons, cannot affect the broader market for the drug.

"This case is and always has been about federalism and state sovereignty," Monson's lawyers argue in their brief.

Diane Monson, who uses marijuana for her back pain, sued after federal agents seized plants in 2002 from her Oroville, Calif., home. (Rich Pedroncelli -- AP)

But the Bush administration counters that even small-scale use of a fungible commodity such as marijuana can affect price and quantity in the black market.

"[E]xcepting drug activity for personal use or free distribution from the sweep of [federal drug laws] would discourage the consumption of lawful controlled substances and would undermine Congress's intent to regulate the drug market comprehensively to protect public health and safety," the administration argues in its brief.

The federalism issue in the case has created unusual alliances. Three conservative Deep South states, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, have filed a friend of the court brief supporting the marijuana users on states' rights grounds. "California is entitled to make for itself the tough policy choices that affect its citizens," the states' brief argues.

Legal analysts say the likeliest supporter on the court for the marijuana users may also be its most conservative member: Justice Clarence Thomas, who, though a harsh critic of drug abuse, has also written that the court must narrowly define Congress's commerce clause powers.

Meanwhile, a liberal environmentalist group, the Community Rights Council, filed a brief in support of the Bush administration, noting the group's interest in "ensuring . . . legislative flexibility to address national concerns."

In two previous cases at the Supreme Court, medical marijuana advocates have a split record.

In 2001, the court ruled 8 to 0 that there is no "medical necessity" exception to federal drug laws against producing and distributing marijuana, so California's "cannabis clubs" cannot escape prosecution by saying they save lives.

But in 2003, the court refused to hear the Bush administration's appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling that said doctors have a right to discuss marijuana as a treatment option with their patients. That left the 9th Circuit ruling on the books.

Thus, today's case is critical to the medical marijuana movement. With cannabis clubs unable to distribute pot legally, a doctor's right to recommend it would be meaningless unless users or their friends can grow it themselves.

The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, No. 03-1454. A decision is expected by July.

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