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Supreme Court Rules Against Medical Marijuana

Monday, 14 May 2001 12:00 AM

The ruling said federal laws against marijuana and other drugs supersede any state initiatives that would allow them. The decision came in the case of a California cannabis cooperative, and reverses a federal appeals court.

Some doctors and patients say that marijuana is useful in a number of medical circumstances, including restoring the appetites and easing the pain of patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Writing for a court majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said, "In this case, the court of appeals erred by considering relevant the evidence that some people have 'serious medical conditions for whom the use of cannabis is necessary in order to treat or alleviate those conditions or their symptoms,' that these people 'will suffer serious harm if they are denied cannabis,' and that 'there is no legal alternative to cannabis for the effective treatment of their medical conditions.'"

Thomas said in the federal Controlled Substances Act "the balance already has been struck against a medical-necessity exception. Because the statutory prohibitions cover even those who have what could be termed a medical necessity, the act precludes consideration of this evidence."

Three justices concurred in the judgment in a separate opinion. Writing for himself and two other liberal court members, Justice John Paul Stevens stressed the narrowness of the decision.

"Lest the court's narrow holding be lost in its broad [details], let me restate it here: 'We hold that medical necessity is not a defense to manufacturing and distributing marijuana,'" Stevens said, putting emphasis on the words "manufacturing" and "distributing."

Stevens said the case did not require a ruling on the "possession" of marijuana "by a seriously ill patient for whom the drug may be a necessity." The question is left open, he said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, whose brother is the federal judge involved in the case at the lower level, took no part in the case.

In 1996, California became one of the few states (Maine, Nebraska and New Mexico are in varying stages of considering the use of marijuana for medical purposes) when California voters passed Proposition 215 allowing medical prescriptions for marijuana.

But the U.S. attorney's office filed a civil action against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative in January 1998 after undercover government agents purchased marijuana there. A federal judge subsequently issued a preliminary injunction against the club, ordering it not to engage "in the manufacture or distribution of marijuana, or the possession of marijuana with the intent to manufacture and distribute. ... "

The cooperative asked the judge to modify the injunction to include a broad exemption for people claiming a "medical necessity" to smoke marijuana. The club asked for permission to distribute marijuana to people who obtain a doctor's certificate saying the marijuana was needed to ease or treat a serious medical condition.

Though the judge refused the cooperative's request, a federal appeals court reversed him.

The appeals court ordered changes in the original injunction, saying the judge did not consider the "strong public interest in the availability of a doctor-prescribed treatment that would help ameliorate the condition and relieve the pain and suffering of a large group of persons with serious or fatal illness."

When neither the judge nor the appeals court would stay the effects of the modified injunction, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court for a stay, which was granted last August. The justices then said last November that they would hear the case.

In a March argument before the justices, Acting Solicitor General Barbara Underwood said that the Controlled Substances Act banned the possession and distribution of marijuana. "Congress, the attorney general and the secretary of Health and Human Services have determined that there is no current medical use for the drug and it represents a high opportunity for abuse."

The appeals court ruling "undermines the ability of the government to protect the public from serious drugs," she said.

Monday's Supreme Court decision reverses the appeals court, and sends the case back down for a new hearing and result based on the decision.

(No. 00-151, USA vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and Jeffrey Jones)

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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The ruling said federal laws against marijuana and other drugs supersede any state initiatives that would allow them. The decision came in the case of a California cannabis cooperative, and reverses a federal appeals court. Some doctors and patients say that marijuana is...
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Monday, 14 May 2001 12:00 AM
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