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Justices Will Hear Argument on Medical Marijuana Laws

June 29, 2004
Linda Greenhouse
New York Times

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether Congress has the authority to prohibit the medical use of marijuana in states where the voters or the legislature have approved the drug's use under a doctor's care.

The case, certain to be one of the most closely watched of the court's next term, is an appeal by the Bush administration of a preliminary ruling issued last December by the federal appeals court in San Francisco. That court, finding that the federal Controlled Substances Act was "likely unconstitutional" as applied to two California patients and their suppliers of marijuana, issued an injunction that barred federal enforcement while the case proceeded.

The case was one of eight new appeals the justices granted as they began the last week of their 2003-2004 term. In addition to its implications for social policy, the case raises important federalism questions. One question is whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extends to marijuana that is cultivated for noncommercial use within the borders of a single state, never traveling in interstate commerce.

California, which adopted its Compassionate Use Act in 1996, is one of nine states that permit marijuana for medical use under some circumstances. The other eight are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Similar efforts are under way in other states.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has strongly opposed the state laws. The case the Supreme Court accepted began with a confrontation between sheriff's deputies in Butte County, Calif., and federal drug agents, who both showed up at the home of Diana Monson, a patient whose severe back spasms are not helped by prescription drugs but are alleviated by marijuana, which she uses under her doctor's care. The sheriff's deputies concluded that the marijuana she was growing was legal, but the federal agents seized and destroyed her plants after a three-hour standoff with the deputies.

Ms. Monson and another patient who uses marijuana, Angel McClary Raich, sued the federal government in Federal District Court, seeking an order saying the Controlled Substances Act could not legally be applied to their marijuana use. They lost in that court but won a preliminary injunction in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where a 2-to-1 majority found their marijuana cultivation and use to be noncommercial in character and outside the jurisdiction of Congress.

Appealing to the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Raich, No. 03-1454, Mr. Ashcroft is arguing that the appeals court's ruling "seriously undermines Congress's comprehensive scheme for the regulation of dangerous drugs." The brief adds: "Marijuana is a commodity that is readily purchased and sold in a well-defined market of drug trafficking," regardless of whether a particular use takes place
within a state's borders.

Copyright © 2004, New York Times