Supreme Court Ruling Bars Distribution of Medical Marijuana, But Impact on State Laws Unclear
In a "setback, but not a definitive blow" to the medical marijuana movement, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 yesterday that "medical necessity" is not a valid defense against federal drug law banning the distribution of marijuana, the New York Times reports. Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Congress' determination that marijuana is a Schedule One drug under the Controlled Substances Act meant that it has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States" (Greenhouse, New York Times, 5/15). The case stems from an attempt by the federal government to shut down an Oakland, Calif., cannabis cooperative that arose following the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, a state ballot initiative allowing the distribution of the drug for medical purposes (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 5/15). U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer initially sided with the federal government and ruled that the cooperative be closed, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and ordered Breyer to rewrite his decision "to permit the cooperative to continue distributing marijuana to those who could prove that it was a 'medical necessity.'" Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who did not participate in yesterday's decision (Lane, Washington Post, 5/15).
While the court clearly ruled that distribution of marijuana violates federal law, the New York Times reports that the decision was a "relatively narrow" one and "left a number of questions unanswered," as the seven states that have passed initiatives similar to California's -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington -- weigh their response to the ruling. The ruling did not invalidate any of the state laws, but among the uncertainties are whether individual patients -- and not the buying cooperative that the decision addresses -- can claim medical necessity in possessing or growing marijuana, and whether states could directly distribute marijuana themselves, a system that Maine and Nevada are considering (New York Times, 5/15). USA Today reports that the justices "effectively split" 5-3 on the former issue, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joining Thomas in holding that the decision "would prevent medical marijuana in virtually all situations" (Biskupic, USA Today, 5/15). However, Justice John Paul Stevens was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter in a concurring opinion that said that Thomas' opinion was overly broad and should be limited to distribution of marijuana by organizations, and apply not to individual patients. "Whether the [medical necessity] defense might be available to a seriously ill patient for whom there is no alternative means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering is a difficult issue that is not presented here," Stevens wrote (Denniston, Boston Globe, 5/15). But the Baltimore Sun reports that the majority's siding with Thomas on this issue "mean[s] that his position will likely prevail in the future" (Healy, Baltimore Sun, 5/15).
But in Reality?
Still, the practical effect of yesterday's decision remains to be seen. The New York Times reports, for instance, that federal prosecutors in California seeking to prosecute distributors of medical marijuana will face a "daunting challenge in finding a jury willing to convict someone for making marijuana available for that purpose" (New York Times, 5/15). Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Americans for Medical Rights, discussing the difficultly that the federal government will face in prosecuting marijuana crimes, said, "There are 700 (drug enforcement agents) in California and 1.5 million marijuana users" (Los Angeles Times, 5/15). And NPR's "All Things Considered" reports that "experts say that outside of the closing of the cannabis clubs [that arose throughout the state following the passage of Proposition 215], today's ruling is likely to have little practical effect (NPR's "All Things Considered," 5/15). Still, opponents of medical marijuana were pleased by yesterday's ruling. "It's encouraging to see the Supreme Court has seen through the pot enthusiasts' smoke screen by ruling in favor of the federal government. Smoking pot is never sound medicine," Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council said (Murray, Washington Times, 5/15). To read the full text of U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, click here. To listen to the "All Things Considered" report on the decision, click here.