Supreme Court Ruling Cancels Provisions in State Medical Marijuana Laws Protecting Users From Federal Prosecution
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a 6-3 decision ruled that the federal government's ban on marijuana trumps provisions in state laws allowing patients with chronic illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and cancer, to be exempt from federal prosecution when using the drug for medicinal purposes, USA Today reports (Biskupic, USA Today, 6/7). Thirty-five states have enacted legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value, and California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have laws permitting the use of medical marijuana (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/30/04). In the case Gonzales v. Raich, which dealt with federal and California laws on marijuana use, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has the authority to regulate interstate commerce to seize homegrown marijuana, which is considered illegal under federal law but legal under some states' laws, the Los Angeles Times reports. The federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a "dangerous and illegal" drug with no medicinal benefits, according to the Times. The court said federal drug agents, prosecutors and judges could arrest, try and punish those who grow or use marijuana for any purposes, but state and local police do not need to assist in the efforts. State laws allowing marijuana use in certain cases still could have "practical significance" because most law enforcement is carried out by state and local officials, the Times reports (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/7). Federal prosecutions of marijuana-related crimes make up a small percentage of drug convictions nationwide, according to USA Today.
Reaction, House Bill
The Department of Justice now must decide how aggressively it will pursue enforcement of federal law, and Congress could change U.S. law to allow the use of medical marijuana, USA Today reports (USA Today, 6/7). Karen Tandy, head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said, "The vast majority of our cases are against those involved in trafficking and major cultivation and distribution," adding, "I don't see any significant changes in DEA enforcement strategies after today's decision. We don't target sick and dying people." A bill (HR 2087) sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would permit physicians to prescribe marijuana as medicine is pending in the House. However, similar measures have failed in past sessions and the chances of the bill's approval are "slim," according to the Times (Los Angeles Times, 6/7).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Tuesday reported on the ruling. The segment includes comments from Donald Abrams, chief of hemotology and oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and principal investigator of recently concluded studies on treating HIV/AIDS and cancer patients with marijuana; Robert DuPont, founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; Charles Fried, professor at Harvard Law School; Jerry Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and professor at Tufts University School of Medicine; and plaintiff Angel Raich (Totenberg, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/7). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.