The Supreme Court used narrow reasoning this week to uphold a federal law that would prevent commercial "clubs" from distributing marijuana to ease the symptoms of various illnesses. On the face of it, this is a worthwhile victory against the use of an illicit drug.
In its reasoning, however, the court seemed to tacitly approve government authority over the type of healthcare that people can use.
Given the basic facts of the case before it, the unanimous ruling makes legal sense. The United States government had sued a California cannabis cooperative to keep it from distributing marijuana in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The cooperative had argued, and a federal appeals court had agreed, that an exception to the law could be made because of "medical necessity."
Many scientific studies have found marijuana to relieve suffering and, like the common use of morphine in the 19th century, such use does not easily lead to addiction when properly administered or regulated.
But Congress has ruled out any use of marijuana except in research. The Supreme Court decided that it would not interpret Congress's intent or support the argument for "medical necessity."
Case closed? Hardly.
Justice John Paul Stevens, while agreeing with the decision, wrote a separate opinion supported by two other justices that hints at a direction for future legal action.
He suggested that there is a public interest in letting individuals find their own relief from suffering, and that might prevail over any federal law that limits a claim to "medical necessity."
In its decision, the court upheld, indirectly, federal authority over the use of marijuana. California and a number of other states have laws that legalize marijuana use when a doctor prescribes it. Should the will of the states, as voiced by their voters, be accorded no weight in this matter?
While some states are willing to respond to public sentiment in this area, there's no sign that Congress is. Many lawmakers worry that legalization of marijuana for medical use could open the door to legalization of other now-illegal drugs. Theoretically, a medical rationale might be found for more addictive substances, like cocaine or heroin.
America is edging toward new ground on drug issues. Laws like the Controlled Substances Act will keep legalization at bay. But attitudes are changing, and politicians sense that. More studies to assess marijuana as a painkiller are inevitable. Meanwhile, legal maneuvering will continue. The eventual outcome could well be a loosened proscription on the regulated use of marijuana as a painkiller. But that needn't set the stage for a general move toward legalization of other drugs. The public is wise enough to know that's a door best kept closed.
In this policy arena, the interests of society in restricting the use of drugs deemed harmful may clash with the interest of society in letting individuals choose their healthcare.
The high court was probably right to avoid solving this conflict.
Now it's up to Congress.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor