Federal Appellate Court Hears California Medicinal Marijuana Case
In a case that will affect medicinal marijuana laws in seven western states and could affect laws nationwide, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco yesterday heard arguments in the government's appeal of a 2000 ruling that the Justice Department cannot revoke a doctor's license to prescribe controlled medications for recommending that patients with debilitating diseases use marijuana to relieve their symptoms, the Contra Costa Times reports. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the medicinal use of marijuana for people with debilitating diseases such as AIDS or cancer. Under the law, doctors can advise patients about and recommend medical marijuana, but the patient must find his or her own means of obtaining the drug. Doctors cannot issue prescriptions for the drug (Booth, Contra Costa Times, 4/8). In the 2000 case, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the federal government cannot revoke a physician's license to prescribe other medications "merely because the doctor recommends medical marijuana to a patient based on a sincere medical judgment." The government has sought the right to prosecute doctors for recommending a substance that remains illegal under federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the illegality of marijuana, giving the federal government the go-ahead to prosecute cannabis suppliers. Michael Stern, the attorney for the federal government, said California's law is "interfering with the drug war and circumventing the government's judgment that marijuana has no medical benefits" (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/8). However, when pressed by the three-judge panel, Stern could not say how a doctor's recommendation would hamper federal drug enforcement efforts, only that it was "perfectly reasonable for the Justice Department to contemplate that there were going to be problems." Graham Boyd, attorney for the defendant and director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Policy Litigation Project, called the government's position "unsustainable" because of its vagueness. "There needs to be a clean line drawn," Boyd said, noting that a doctor cannot be held liable for a transaction between a patient and a third party, such as a cannabis club (Contra Costa Times, 4/8). He added that doctor-patient conversations were "protected by the First Amendment." It is not known when the court will issue a ruling on the case (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/8).
Federal Guidelines Needed, Editorial Says
Making marijuana legal through prescription would "establish the appropriate uses for the drug" and "provide more control over its distribution, taking customers away from street dealers," a Portland (Maine) Press Herald editorial states. The Press Herald notes that Maine "acted appropriately" by "heed[ing] the will of voters," who approved medical marijuana use in a 1999 referendum, and by recently expanding the state's medical marijuana laws. The editorial states that there is "ample anecdotal evidence that people do find relief from pain and nausea" by using the drug and calls on Congress to make it legal by prescription (Portland Press Herald, 4/8).