May 18th, 2009
11:18 AM ET
13 years ago

High court denies review of 'medical marijuana' law

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="The Supreme Court rejected appeals by two California counties which are refusing to accommodate Preposition 213, which legalized medical marijuana use in the state."]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).

Filed under: California • Supreme Court
soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Mississippi Mike

    Dude, you're harshing my mellow. If you take away my chronic, I'll like have to get a job and move out of my mom's basement. If you wan't me to stay a Democrat, you better let me keep dancing with Mary Jane.

    May 18, 2009 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  2. scott stodden

    I beleive we should pass the law to legalize marijuana, people are out there suffering from cancer and aids and this helps those people who are suffering from those illnesses. I think it would be a mistake if we as a country did not legalize the use of marijuana

    May 18, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  3. Lowell

    What's there to debate? Marijuana has medicinal purposes, use it for those purposes.

    Anything that be put into pill form, powder form, smoked, inhaled, injected or absorb through osmosis can be abused. This isn't about legalizing a leaf that people use as a drug. This is about a drug that should be legalized for medical use and for that, there is NO debate. It helps people when they're hurting. The doctor should be able to prescribe it as medicine in these cases.

    May 18, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  4. brendan

    Its about time we let our voices be heard to help legalize marijuana. Regulate it and tax it just like alcohol and tobacco. It will stop making criminals out of millions of good productive citizens and reduce crime along the border with Mexico. It will also help boost our economy. Prohibition was shown to be detrimental in the previous century, as it is now.

    May 18, 2009 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  5. Fair is Fair

    Although I'll be the first to admit I don't know a lot about the effectiveness of marijuana medicinally, here's the problem I have with the issue:

    I know for a fact you can get a scrpit for MJ just by going into a clinic in CA and saying you suffer from migranes (can't be diagnosed). So... someone can go... see the doc... get the script... and get the MJ... and insurance pays the bill.

    Now if that person is on public assistance... I and other taxpayers are paying the bill.

    Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

    May 18, 2009 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  6. David

    I was diagnosed with cancer recently. I am already a medical marijuana patient and have been for 8 years. I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. No matter what the government does about this issue I will continue to seek marijuana and risk jail or fines. The medicine is very important to me in alleviating my pain and discomfort. The only lives lost from smoking marijuana are those those involved in criminal activity associated with it. The government can stop that by making it legal .More people die from alcohol related deaths each day then do smoking a joint. Wake up America !

    May 18, 2009 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  7. Minnesotan

    Legalize it, tax it and fix the economic destruction left by the Republicans.

    May 18, 2009 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  8. Anonymous

    Why should Supreme Court's decision matter? This should be decided by states themselves.

    May 18, 2009 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  9. joey

    The debate shouldn't be about whether medical marijuana is beneficial or not. This is a debate about your rights as a human being. No government has the right to tell you what you can or cannot put into your body. How can we call this a free country if I can't even grow a plant?

    May 18, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  10. Tony

    Cannabis is about the least dangerous thing you can ingest. Not as bad as cigarettes, alcohol, and most of the fatty food we consume, all of which is legal.

    May 18, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  11. awaitingliberalizationbyCNN

    This was one of the major factors in the election of BHO, as you can tell by the content of these responses and the fact that the armpit and dope sniffing libs usually inhabit these CNN pages. I am sure the new supreme court justice he appoints will not disappoint you selfish dudes.

    May 18, 2009 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  12. joey

    400,000 people a year die from alchohal abuse alone.

    Guess how many people have died in the history of smoke cannabis?

    ZERO!! 0!!! one less then uno!! NONE!!! NO ONE EVER HAS DIED FROM SMOKING CANNABIS!!

    Why is this illegal again?

    May 18, 2009 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  13. Qui-Tam Relator

    Here we have a government that turns a blind eye on the trafficing of deadly drugs, guns, illeagle alien's, child prostitution, infectiuos diseases accross our southern border but it won't allow the use of a drug that is known to alleviate pain and suffering to our American Citizens that want an alternative way to help themselves cope with their different types of illness. Is this a government that loves it's physically and mentally ill population !

    May 18, 2009 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  14. Cali J

    Get real everybody, Marijuana was legal and doing good things in many industries years ago until the Govt. and Pharm., Plastics, and Timber Companies decided they didn't want competition. This is a God given plant with Medical and Industrial as well as recreational benefits. Tax revenues and new business opportunities are just the tip of the ice berg. Legalize it, Tax It, Regulate It, and get the people who are hurting off of addicting pharms and let a green natural product assist them. Young people should not be in prison for Marijuana. Legalization will also cut down on about one third of the Cartels income, as well as stop the wasteful spending of our so called drug war. It's time to smarten up about this. Ban alcohol and addicting legal drugs.

    May 18, 2009 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  15. Melissa

    Good. Its not harmless no matter what people keep trying to claim. Lets keep it illegal.

    The drug in marijuana thats useful for helping people like cancer patients is available by other methods and doesn't make the person taking it as high as a kite.

    There is no need to legalize medical marijuana.

    May 18, 2009 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  16. Brian G, Sugar Land, TX

    Well, they do cal lit the "High Court"...

    May 18, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  17. Jerome

    Mississippi Mike: You're an idiot. I thought Republicans were "States Rights" advocates. I guess you only believe in States Rights when states want to RESTRICT the rights of individuals (sex, free speech, environmental protection) and ENHANCE the rights of Industry & religious fundamentalism (polluters, banking, religious instruction in public schools). Hypocrites.

    May 18, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  18. Joe

    Lets see Mike from Mississippis i'm 31 and I need medical MJ. I moved out of my parents house 12 years ago. If you want me to stay a Republican you all of us better start changing our minds.

    May 18, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  19. What the Holy Heck

    Opoids that provide the high in heroin are illegal to possess, unless you have a prescription for codeine. How is this any different?

    You'd think a competent attorney could make that comparison and be done with it.

    May 18, 2009 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  20. Eleanor

    It's LONG past time for legalization. How many uncounted billions have been utterly wasted in the so-called "War on Drugs". Give me a break! If people want to smoke marijuana...and clearly they do, then they should be able to do it. The state has no vested interest in whether or not people chose to consume this drug. It's time to get the government OUT of the personal lives of the American populace!

    May 18, 2009 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  21. S Callahan

    I wish the courts would review this. I suffer a chronic illness...though I don't partake in the subtance nor have a desire at this time...if and when the time came to relieve pain this would be my choice over the plastic medications given through the pharmacies. It's time to change the rules on this drug. Years ago there was no limitation to was used to make products clothes, rope, etc...look it up...imagine, rope for the miliitary.
    And of course it was also used as a medication. I don't believe this is a gateway drug...the 'so called norms' taught in society make it gateway only. Time to change.

    May 18, 2009 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  22. david, CA

    Time for all those conservative and libertarian champions of "State's rights" to step up on this issue. Adult Americans in every state should have the right to decide whether to smoke weed or down a fifth of vodka.

    May 18, 2009 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  23. R. Pearce

    Anti-marijuana laws have never really worked and never will. Millions of people smoke it on a regular basis and no doubt will continue to do so. You cannot jail them all, that would require this county to become one big prison. It is time to recognize that if people want something they will get it. Making marijuana laws more stringent is the usual policy of politicians trying to look responsible, but their actions are in fact irresponsible because the logic behind the laws is flawed, counterproductive, inconsistent and downright crazy. Drug violence is based on money, a situation that could be relieved (as in 1933 with another "drug") by legalization.

    May 18, 2009 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  24. randy

    legalize marijuana and end the blackmarket billionares that drive most of are crime.

    May 18, 2009 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  25. W

    I am a diabled veteran of the War on Terror. I have chronic back pain, and the only thing the VA will do for me is proscibe me narcotics. I dont want these potent and addictive drugs that knock me out, but the other choice is living a life of pain. Since living in CA I have used this alternative medicine with good results. I am a successful attorney and former Marine, and definatly not a loser living in my parents bedroom!

    May 18, 2009 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
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