Light 'Em Up

Advocates for medical pot look beyond a Supreme Court bummer

WASHINGTON—To many, the Supreme Court ruling Monday against medical marijuana spelled the end of the movement for compassionate use. Federal laws against it trumped state provisions for it, the justices said, and that was that.

But quickly, a leading advocate for medical marijuana found reason to hope, arguing that the case, which reversed a ruling from the Ninth Circuit on a California state measure, wouldn't affect permissive state laws elsewhere. That lower court had found that federal prosecution of patients who cultivate and process marijuana for their own medicinal use is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.

Today's ruling struck down an injunction barring the Justice Department from arresting two California patients for violating the federal Controlled Substance Abuse Act. "While we are disappointed with the court's decision, the bottom line is that state and local laws protecting medicinal cannabis patients and their physicians remain in place and are unaffected by this ruling," NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre said.

The states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have passed laws allowing patients some leeway with the medicical use of marijuana.

Congress is now considering two bills that could legalize it at the federal level. One House bill, sponsored by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey and California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, would keep the federal government from prosecuting people who are in compliance with their state marijuana laws. Another bill, sponsored by Hinchey and Rohrabacher along with Democrat Barney Frank, libertarian-minded Texas congressman Ron Paul, and Democrat Sam Farr, from California, has 31 co-sponsors. It would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to their patients.

In a Voice interview, St. Pierre said that some form of medical cannabis, whether in a dermal patch or smoked or as a sublingual spray, would be on the way in the next decade. He cited advances for the cause in other nations. "In Canada, this is all legal, no question. Canada, the Netherlands have made the distinction between nonmedical access to marijuana and not, hands down. Here, there's a huge disconnect between federal lawmakers and the citizens."

In an interesting twist, a campaign more usually associated with progressives got its only backing from conservative members of the court. Writing her dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens." She was joined by two other states' rights advocates: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Following the lead of the three-person minority, David Michael, co-counsel for the two California patients, called the decision a great leap backward. "Where the Supreme Court has failed, it is now up to Congress to protect the citizens of this country and their states from an overreaching federal government," he said.


Additional reporting: Halley Bondy, Natalie Wittlin

 
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