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Federal Appeals Court Says That Centers May Distribute Cannabis

By Maura Dolan and Mary Curtius

A federal appeals court created a potentially major opening in federal drug laws Monday, ruling that medical marijuana centers may be allowed to distribute cannabis if they can prove the drug is needed to protect patients against imminent medical harm.

In its decision, the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that a federal judge should have considered patients’ medical needs for marijuana when he ordered a cannabis club in Oakland last year to stop distributing the drug.

The ruling “means that the federal law is not an absolute barrier to distribution of marijuana,” said University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelmen, who helped represent the Oakland center. “It requires courts to exercise discretion to look at the circumstances of individual patients and weigh that against the public interest.”

The court did not overturn U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer’s injunction against the club but said he must consider the case again, taking into account evidence that some patients need cannibis to treat debilitating and life threatening conditions.

The decision could eventually lead to the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative and others being allowed to distribute marijuana to some severely ill patients, said Robert Raich, another attorney for the center.

“It may provide a method under federal law in which medical patients, some medical patients, can be provided with the medical cannabis they need ... legally,” the Oakland attorney said.

California voters in November 1996 approved Proposition 215, which permitted seriously ill patients to obtain and use marijuana with their doctors’ recommendations without being prosecuted under state law.

The Clinton administration, however, sued six Northern California clubs on the grounds that a federal ban on marijuana distribution prevails over the state initiative.