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High court rules that federal powers eclipse state laws about medical use of marijuana

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 6 the federal government has the authority to prosecute users of marijuana for medicinal purposes in states that allow the practice.

The justices voted 6-3 to reverse a lower court decision blocking enforcement of a federal law that prohibits marijuana use. The high court agreed with the Bush administration it should be able to prosecute California patients who have used medicinal marijuana they have grown or been given under a state law permitting use of the federally banned substance.

Congress had a “rational basis for believing that failure to regulate the intrastate manufacture and possession of marijuana would leave a gaping hole” in the federal law regulating marijuana and other illegal drugs, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

Proponents of the enforcement of federal anti-drug laws hailed the opinion.

“Everyone who is concerned about the epidemic of drug abuse afflicting our culture, with the horrendous toll in human life and suffering left in its wake, should be relieved that the Supreme Court understands that the regulation of illicit drugs in the end must be a federal issue,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “There must be a 50-state-wide standard, not a patchwork quilt of various exceptions in differing states. Marijuana is extremely addictive and is virtually 100 percent a gateway drug to even more harmful illicit and illegal drugs.”

Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, said in a written statement the decision is an “important victory for sound drug policy, but, more importantly, it is a victory for the future of our children and the hope for a drug-free America.”

A spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which supports liberalization of the federal anti-drug policy, said the ruling shows Congress needs to change the law “to recognize [marijuana’s] therapeutic ability.”

NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said it “is time for the federal government to butt out of doctors’ decisions regarding which medicine is the most safe and effective for their patients.”

The decision impacts not only California but nine other states that have approved the medical use of marijuana. They are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The reasoning of the court in a clash between a state and the federal government’s law controlling the use of certain drugs will be tested in another case in the next Supreme Court term. The high court has announced it will decide if the federal government can prevent drugs from being used in assisted suicides. The justices will review a lower court decision last year that blocked a Department of Justice ban on the use of federally regulated drugs in physician-assisted suicides in Oregon, which is the only state in which the practice is legal. The court’s next term begins in October.

The laws that clashed in the case decided June 6 were a 1970 federal statute, the Controlled Substances Act, which bars the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs, and the Compassionate Use Act, a measure approved by California voters in a 1996 referendum that permits medical marijuana use with the recommendation of a doctor.

The case, Gonzales v. Raich, involved two women who have used marijuana for health reasons. Angel Raich has used marijuana grown and provided without charge by friends to treat several serious conditions, including a brain tumor. Diane Monson has used the drug she has grown on her own for severe back pain and muscle spasms.

A federal judge refused to block enforcement of the law, but a divided, three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December 2003 that marijuana could be used medically by those who grow it or obtain it without charge.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the federal government had not exceeded its authority in enforcing the Controlled Substances Act regarding California’s medical marijuana law.

Congress can regulate non-commercial, intrastate activity “if it concludes that failure to regulate that class of activity would undercut the regulation of the interstate market in that commodity,” Stevens wrote for the majority.

“The exemption for cultivation by patients and caregivers can only increase the supply of marijuana in the California market,” Stevens said. “The likelihood that all such production will promptly terminate when patients recover or will precisely match the patients’ medical needs during their convalescence seems remote; whereas the danger that excesses will satisfy some of the admittedly enormous demand for recreational use seems obvious.”

Congress may revise the law to permit medicinal use of marijuana, Stevens wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said it was not clear the non-commercial, medicinal use of marijuana “substantially affects interstate commerce.”

“This overreaching [by the majority] stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently,” O’Connor wrote. While she would not have voted for the medical marijuana initiative, “the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case,” she said.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas joined O’Connor in dissenting from the court’s opinion.

Joining Stevens in the majority were Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Scalia wrote another opinion concurring with the court’s judgment but arguing that the opinion should not have been based on the Commerce Clause alone but also should have included the Necessary and Proper Clause in its reasoning.