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Supreme Court Ruling Deals Blow to ‘Medical Marijuana’

By Charles Lane
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal law bars the distribution of marijuana even to people who say they must have it to alleviate symptoms of serious illness, dealing a setback to the movement for “medical marijuana” laws and limiting the impact of the state laws already on the books.

Ruling 8-0 in a case involving a California “cannabis cooperative” that supplied the drug to patients suffering from cancer, AIDS and other illnesses, the court said that federal anti-drug law allows no “medical necessity” exception to the general prohibition on selling or growing marijuana.

Federal law “reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception,” the court said in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The court upheld federal authorities’ ability to obtain a court order shutting down the cooperative.

The ruling does not directly invalidate “medical marijuana” laws now on the books in nine states, mostly in the West. Those states remain free to choose not to prosecute people who use marijuana for medical purposes, and the federal government rarely prosecutes individuals for marijuana use.

However, in those states, the ruling is likely to doom large, public distribution centers -- confining the use of “medical marijuana” to private, small-scale settings outside the usual scope of federal enforcement efforts.

In addition, the court may have deterred additional states from joining the “medical marijuana” movement, which appeared to be gaining popular acceptance in recent years.

“The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision is a strong endorsement of congressional legislation banning marijuana production and distribution under federal law,” said Barry McCaffrey, who served as federal drug czar during the Clinton administration.

California attorney general Bill Lockyer said the ruling was “unfortunate” and that “the responsibility for determining what is necessary to provide for public health and safety has traditionally been left to the states.”

Chuck Thomas, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbies for medical marijuana laws, said, “My two biggest fears are that it will be somewhat more inconvenient for medical marijuana users ... and that next year state legislators will say ’Oh, no, now we can’t pass a new state law.’ ”

Supporters of medical marijuana say that the drug is often the only source of relief for cancer patients experiencing excruciating pain or AIDS patients feeling crippling nausea. Some anorexics have used marijuana to maintain their appetites.

Opponents, however, say that there are abundant legal alternatives, including a synthetic form of the active ingredient in marijuana, and that the medical marijuana movement’s real goal is de facto legalized marijuana for recreational use.

As a candidate last year, President Bush expressed sympathy for states’ rights to devise their own marijuana policies at variance with the federal approach. When the case was argued before the Supreme Court in March, Bush issued a statement expressing his personal opposition to medical marijuana laws, and expressing support for the Justice Department’s position in the case, which was initiated under President Clinton.