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Supreme Court Bars Marijuana as Medical Necessity

By Larry Margasak
Associated Press Writer
Monday, May 14, 2001; 1:08 P.M.

WASHINGTON –– The Supreme Court handed medical marijuana users a major defeat Monday, ruling that a federal law classifying the drug as illegal has no exception for ill patients.

The 8-0 decision was a major disappointment to many sufferers of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses. They have said the drug helped enormously in combatting the devastating effects of their diseases.

The court's action does not strike down state laws allowing medical use of marijuana, but leaves those distributing the drug for that purpose open to prosecution.

In other action the court:

–Received a request from lawyers for Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, asking the justices to reconsider his appeal in light of the FBI's failure to give defense lawyers thousands of documents.

–Overturned former baseball player Steve Garvey's $3 million labor settlement, ruling 8-1 that a lower court usurped the role of an outside arbitrator by awarding Garvey the money.

–Agreed to decide if police may prosecute new crimes with evidence seized from homes of criminals who consented to blanket searches as a condition of probation.

Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the marijuana ruling because his brother, a federal judge, initially presided over the case.

"In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a government-approved research project)," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court.

Thomas noted the act states marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use."

The federal government triggered the case in 1998, seeking an injunction against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and five other marijuana distributors.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by two colleagues, said the court majority went too far.

It should have left open the possibility that an individual could raise a medical necessity defense, especially a patient "for whom there is no alternative means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering," Stevens said.

He said the ruling could lead to friction between the federal government and states that have passed medical marijuana laws.

"This begs the question, What will the multitude of federal prosecutors do in the nine states that have passed medical access laws?" for marijuana, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Norml Foundation. Norml stands for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"Surely the prosecutors can't hope to arrest and attempt to prosecute individual medical marijuana patients," St. Pierre said.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, brother of the justice, sided with the government. All the clubs except the Oakland group eventually closed down, and the Oakland club turned to registering potential marijuana recipients while it awaited a final ruling.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, ruling that medical necessity is a legal defense. Charles Breyer followed up by issuing strict guidelines for making that claim.

Voters in Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have approved ballot initiatives allowing the use of medical marijuana. In Hawaii, the legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year.

The cooperative argued that a drug may not yet have achieved general acceptance as a medical treatment, but may still have medical benefits to a particular patient or class of patients.

Thomas said the argument cannot overcome the intent of Congress in approving the statute.

"It is clear from the text of the act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," Thomas wrote.

"Unwilling to view this omission as an accident, and unable in any event to override a legislative determination manifest in a statute, we reject the cooperative's argument."

Advocates of medical marijuana say the drug can ease side effects from chemotherapy, save nauseated AIDS patients from wasting away or even allow multiple sclerosis sufferers to rise from a wheelchair and walk.

There is no definitive science that the drug works, or works better than conventional, legal alternatives.

Several states are considering medical marijuana laws, and Congress may revisit the issue this year. A measure to counteract laws like California's died in the House last year.

Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy. Stevens was joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The case is United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, 00-151.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company