Federal Court of Appeals Rules Federal Ban on Marijuana Unconstitutional in States Allowing Medical Use of Drug
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Tuesday ruled 2-1 that a federal ban on marijuana is unconstitutional when applied to people who use marijuana for medical reasons in states where the drug's use is allowed under a physician's advice, provided that the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medical purposes, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17). Under California's Proposition 215, a ballot measure approved by voters in 1996, patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer and AIDS can use medical marijuana to treat pain (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/16/02). The case involved two California women -- Angel Raich and Diane Monson -- who received letters from their doctors authorizing them to use marijuana for medical purposes. The physicians' permission protected them from state and local prosecution under Proposition 215 (Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 12/17). Raich and Monson filed a lawsuit in October 2002 against Attorney General John Ashcroft and DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson asking for an injunction that would allow them to continue using marijuana without prosecution. A district judge in March ruled against Raich and Monson, and Raich appealed the case to the 9th Circuit Court (Carreon, San Jose Mercury News, 12/17). Neither woman has been prosecuted for using the drug (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17).
Although routine law enforcement falls under state authority, Ashcroft, Hutchinson and other federal officials have said that the federal government has jurisdiction in marijuana cases because illicit drugs are sold as part of interstate commerce. However, attorneys for Raich and Monson said that the women use the drug only for medicinal purposes, they did not pay for the drug and their actions did not involve interstate commerce, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 12/17). The decision, written by Judge Harry Pregerson and supported by Judge Richard Paez, found the two women's "class of activities -- the intrastate, noncommercial cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for personal medical purposes on the advice of a physician -- is, in fact, different in kind from drug-trafficking" and that because it involved no sale or purchase, their activities fell outside the federal government's jurisdiction (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 12/17). However, C. Arlen Beam, who dissented, said that marijuana is a crop that "could be sold in the marketplace and which is also being used for medicinal purposes in place of other drugs which would have to be purchased in the marketplace," so the federal government should have jurisdiction over such activities (Los Angeles Times, 12/17).
Misha Piastro, a spokesperson for the San Diego office of the DEA, said his office would "await direction from Washington" about how to enforce the federal 1970 Controlled Substances Act while the case is being appealed (McDonald, San Diego Union-Tribune, 12/17). According to the Chronicle, the decision "could be short-lived" because the appeals court has "regularly seen its precedent-setting decisions -- particularly those by liberal panels -- overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court," including a 2001 decision that would have allowed marijuana cooperatives to supply the drug to patients who could not be treated with legal drugs. The ruling affects six other states in the 9th Circuit -- Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii -- that also have medical marijuana laws (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17).