The US Supreme Court has struck a serious blow to the growing movement to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, renewing a clash between federal drug laws and a vocal wing of the healthcare system.
In an "emergency" order, the high court barred distribution of the drug to Californians whose doctors recommend it to relieve the pain of patients. While Tuesday's order is specific to "buyers' clubs," which openly distribute marijuana, it presages the court's mood on the issue and could be a sign of things to come. The justices ruled 7 to 1 on this issue.
Seven states have passed initiatives similar to California's, and the high court is scheduled to hear further arguments on the issue this fall, including whether the drug is a "medical necessity."
"This case could very well end up being terribly important in the debate on medical marijuana," says Keith Stroup, founder of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "It may be a harbinger of things to come from the Supreme Court."
The high court's action was the latest development in a conflict between federal narcotics laws and a 1996 California ballot initiative known as Proposition 215.
The initiative allows seriously ill patients to grow and use marijuana to relieve pain, with a doctor's recommendation. But federal law says marijuana has no medical purposes and cannot be administered safely under medical supervision.
Similar initiatives have been passed in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
In the case, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "medical necessity" is a "legally cognizable defense" to a charge of distributing drugs in violation of federal law.
Because of that ruling, Judge Charles Breyer said the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative could provide marijuana to people facing serious medical conditions and for whom legal alternatives to marijuana do not work or cause intolerable side effects.
Justice Department lawyers called the Ninth Circuit Court's "unprecedented ruling" a dangerous one because it created "incentives for drug manufacturers and distributors to invoke the asserted needs of others as a justification for their drug trafficking."
The government's emergency request said allowing such distribution of marijuana would "promote disrespect and disregard for an act of Congress that is central to combating illicit drug trafficking and use by giving a judicial stamp of approval to the open and notorious distribution of [illegal] substances."
In response, lawyers for the marijuana club urged that the government's request be rejected. "The government has provided no evidence that states ... that have passed medical cannabis laws have any difficulty prosecuting violations of their drug statutes."
The Supreme Court will take up several other issues related to the use of medical marijuana when it reconvenes this fall. Still to be answered are: Is marijuana a "medical necessity" and is Proposition 215 in conflict with federal law?
But in the meantime, predicts Mr. Stroup, the tens of thousands of people using marijuana for medical reasons will simply "go underground" to obtain the drug.
*Material from wire reports was used in this article.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society