WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Supreme Court sidestepped Monday the politically explosive debate over whether federal drug laws trump the use of so-called legalized "medical marijuana."
The decision leaves unclear how local districts must comply if a state law, passed by referendum, allowing the limited use of medical marijuana conflicts with the federal government's tough anti-narcotic stance.
The justices Monday rejected appeals from two California counties, which have balked at accommodating Proposition 213, which legalized cannabis for pain-suffering patients with a prescription.
At issue is whether the federal Controlled Substances Act - which prohibits pot possession for any purpose - supersedes state medical laws, when it comes to enforcement and liability for local districts. A California appeals court found federal oversight was limited since it was designed "to combat recreational drug use, not to regulate a state's medical practices."
If the Supreme Court ever decides to tackle the issue, observers believe the justices will likely insist the Obama administration weigh in with its views of the state-federal tug-of-war.
California is one of 13 states legalizing pot to be grown, distributed, sold and taken for personal "medicinal" use. Users include former television host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis.
San Diego and San Bernardino counties refused to issue identification cards for such patients, prompting a lawsuit from individuals and marijuana advocacy groups. The ACLU is representating the lead plaintiff, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Many ill Californians who use it say marijuana can help provide relief in the treatment of cancer, AIDS, chronic pain, glaucoma, and arthritis, among other ailments. It is most commonly smoked for such purposes.
The voluntary use of identification cards was designed to ensure certified patients and their doctors were not arbitrarily arrested for pot possession or distribution. The state Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program Act require counties to provide applications for those who request the cards.
The federalism conflict has been tying up courts for years, and those on both sides of the issue have urged the high court to issue definitive ruling on the overall constitutionality of state medical marijuana laws.
The Supreme Court has previously said federal narcotics laws do not conflict with state autonomy, but that drug enforcement agents retain the power to arrest those who sell or use marijuana, even for state-sanctioned medical use.
After California's referendum passed in 1996, "cannabis clubs" sprung up across the state to provide marijuana to patients. They were eventually shut down by the state's attorney general.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that anyone distributing medical marijuana could be prosecuted, despite claims their activity was a "medical activity."
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began raids that same year against patients using the drug and their caregivers in California. Among those arrested was Angel Raich, who has brain cancer, and Diane Monson, who grew cannabis in her garden to help alleviate chronic back pain.
"I need to use cannabis every two hours," Raich, a mother from Oakland, told CNN four years ago. "If I don't medicate every two hours, I become debilitated."
Shortly aftreward, 6-3 high court majority rejected an appeal from Raich, saying the federal government can prohibit the backyard cultivation of pot for personal use, because such use has broader social and financial implications.
The court's ruling turned on the long-standing issue of the federal government's power to regulate trade, illegal or otherwise. "The case," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, "comes down to the claim that a locally cultivated product that is used domestically rather than sold on the open market is not subject to federal regulation. Given the [federal anti-drug] Act's findings and the undisputed magnitude of the commercial market for marijuana," federal power held sway in such cases.
Stevens also noted patients could pursue an appeal on individual due process claims, which were not an issue before the Court then. "But perhaps even more important than these legal avenues is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these (California women) may one day be heard in the halls of Congress," he added.
A federal appeals court two years ago rejected Raich's latest appeal on her due process rights, noting "Although changes in state law reveal a clear trend towards the protection of medical marijuana use, we hold that the asserted right has not yet gained the traction on a national scale to be deemed fundamental."
The same San Francisco-based court last month upheld a 10-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for Bryan Epis, convicted of drug conspiracy. He said he was growing 458 marijuana plants for legal use by himself and fellow patients. Prosecutors said he was a simple drug dealer looking to profit from illegal narcotics.
The current high court cases are San Diego County v. San Diego NORML (08-887); San Bernardino County v. California (08-897).
Michael Phelps had his picture taken smoking marijuana. He was treated like a criminal. Lost endorsements. How can we call this a free country when everything is against the law?! Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete in the history of the world, but he smokes pot. Tell me again why marijuana is so bad?? What are you so afraid of? Maybe we would all be better off smoking a joint, god knows that cheeseburger is killing you off faster! And btw I don't smoke marijuana but I believe in freedom of choice. U aint hurting nobody so why should anybody care?!
I think that Marijuana Co-Ops ought to shoot at the DEA when they come to raid. They are illegal arrests. Tyranny should not be tolerated, not even (and especially) from our own government. If a local community has laws that are enforced for the good everyone, then no person, from the next county, or the next state, let alone a C student turned drug cop from Washington, has the authority to impose jail or prison on a citizen obeying the law(s) of the land. We have the right to bear arms to stop things like this. The local police should arrest and detain any federal agent that is not acting in accordance with local laws. If the police won't, then the citizens should. Don't tread on me.
I have never smoked marijuana in my life. I also suffer from severe disk disease. I have lived in several areas of the country, the state I am in now, I have attempted to see several doctors to try and continue my medication which I have been on for years. Every doctor I went to here basically told me, they won't prescribe pain medication because they aren't taking the legal liability for it, despite the fact that I have a serious medical condition, and there are days I can hardly move, and also have a 10 year documented history with this condition.
I have never done an illegal drug in my life, but if this could help my condition, and I wouldn't have to depend on doctors who are more concerned with their liability than treating their own patients, then I am for it.
You can get a prescription in California easier than you can get a prescription for Viagra. If one needs pot for their medical needs they need to give up their drivers license so they are not driving under the influence and kill some innocent person.
I hope the new Justice has a different opinion on this matter.
Legalize gay marriage before you legalize marijuana.... at least the first one doesn't result in additional substance abuse.
Marijuana should be legal. It's ridiculous that our society sanctions the use of alcohol, a dangerous drug, but outlaws the use of marijuana, a much-less harmful substance to a person's health and society as a whole. And why won't the Supreme Court take up this issue? There is clearly a legal issue here that must be resolved, and isn't that the job of the court?
Mark,B'ham,Al. is not very informed.
Marijuana doesn't impair like alcohol. There is not a sobriety test for marijuana for a reason. IT DOES NOT IMPAIR YOU!!! You don't stumble or slur your words when you get high. You are still buying into STEREOTYPES from 30 years ago. Read a book.
Ryan, there are MANY more people affected by tyrannical drug laws then by a lack of gay rights. First things first.
The costs associated with keeping it illegal, including insanely long prison sentences to give politicians the appearance of being "tough on crime," are far far more damaging to our society than the costs allegedly associated with legalizing it. Add in that we could be taxing it silly just like we do with cigarettes and the fact that industrial hemp is insanely useful and it's really a no-brainer. It's really too bad that the disinformation campaigns engaged in by politicians and special interests who get campaign donations and make money off the continued existence of a "drug war" are keeping us from evolving on this issue and recognizing that the simple cost-benefit analysis involved is not what some would like to mischaracterize it to be. It's ironic that it's not the ones who smoke it who are behaving the most paranoid.
Marijuana was made illegal to control illegal Mexicans about a hundred years ago. And, as we can all see it worked perfectly. Then the Rockafeller laws helped put many non-violent people in prison in order to save society. Over the last hundred years things have only gotten worse. When will we learn that the prohibition mantality doesn't work.
Whether it has medical uses or not, what does it matter. There should never be restrictions on what someone does that does not effect anyone else. The government is the last place I look to for moral and ethical guidance.
Legalize it, regulate it, tax it! It is no different from any other mind altering drug, even the legal ones.
Poor dope smokin liberal Obama voters. They all believed he would make it legal. That is why he was elected by the dopers.
And these high and mighty judges go to lunch everyday and drink, and then go home every night and drink until the pass out. Just like 99% over our Congress. And they have a problem with POT?????
Our drug laws have destabilized Mexico and Colombia because we provide endless cash and firearms to criminals there. We also provide endless money and guns to the poppy growing terrorists of Afghanistan. Many of our lower level government officials have been corrupted by drug money. Richard Nixon declared war on drugs decades ago, and we have spent a lot of tax money fighting that war.
At the same time, any high school kid who has the cash can purchase any drug he or she wants in any city in America.
Our Supreme Court has missed another opportunity to clarify this issue.