MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON, May 14 — A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that marijuana may not be given to patients whose doctors prescribe cannabis, ruling that federal laws override a California law allowing the medicinal use of pot.
THE COURT ruled 8-0 that federal law prohibits the distribution or sales of marijuana, whether or not it is for medical purposes.
But the court divided on whether possession of pot by those with a proven medical need is similarly illegal, with a 5-3 majority holding that it is.
Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the case because his brother, a federal judge, initially presided over the case.
The court’s ruling is expected to immediately shut down medical marijuana cooperatives formed to distribute the drug to those with a medical need in California and other states.
In writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said Congress had deliberately excluded marijuana when it enacted anti-drug laws.
“It is clear from the text of the act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception,” Thomas wrote.
“Unwilling to view this omission as an accident, and unable in any event to override a legislative determination manifest in a statute, we reject the cooperative’s argument.”
NO ‘MEDICAL NECESSITY’ SEEN
“In this case, we must decide whether there is a medical necessity exception to these prohibitions,” the decision continued. “We hold that there is not.”
The decision was a major disappointment to many sufferers of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses. They have said the drug can ease side effects from chemotherapy, save nauseated AIDS patients from wasting away or even allow multiple sclerosis sufferers to rise from a wheelchair and walk.
There is no definitive science that the drug works, or works better than conventional, legal alternatives.
Advocates decry court's decision
Advocates of medical marijuana attending a conference in San Francisco told MSNBC.com’s health editor, Charlene Laino, that they would continue to press the issue.
“As I see it, we can still cultivate marijuana for medicinal use, possess it and use it — just not sell it,” said Dennis Peron, author of the 1996 initiative that changed state law. He indicated he would continue to grow the plant on his Northern California cannabis farm and provide it for free to some 300 patients.
San Francisco AIDS specialist Dr. Donald Abrams, who has been studying the medical use of marijuana by HIV-positive patients since 1997 under a federal grant, said the court shouldn’t have attempted to resolve what is still a scientific question.
“I try to separate science and politics,” Abrams said. “But then you get a situation like this, where the Supreme Court decides they are medical authorities.”
LAWS ON BOOKS IN NINE STATES
California voters made the state the first in the nation to allow the medical marijuana movement, approving a change in state law in November 1996. Voters in Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington followed suit. In Hawaii, the legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year.
Several other states are considering medical marijuana laws, and Congress may revisit the issue this year. A measure to counteract laws like California’s died in the House last year.
The laws do not legalize marijuana outright or change the criminal penalties for possessing, growing, or selling marijuana for recreational use. Instead, they provide an exemption from criminal penalties for seriously ill patents who can demonstrate a medical need for it.
Under the California law, a doctor must determine that “the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”
The federal government
triggered the case in 1998, seeking an injunction against the Oakland Cannabis
Buyers Cooperative and five other marijuana distributors.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, brother of the justice, sided with the government. All the clubs except the Oakland group eventually closed down, and the Oakland club turned to registering potential marijuana recipients while it awaited a final ruling.
A federal judge, Charles Breyer — the brother of Justice Stephen Breyer - ruled that under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, federal law supersedes state law when the two conflict. While saying he was expressing no view on the legality of California’s medical marijuana law, the judge nonetheless ruled that the federal government was well within its rights to shut the cannabis clubs down.
The judge rejected arguments from some patients that they faced a choice of evils: they could either obey federal law that denied them relief from debilitating pain, loss of sight, or serious illness, or they could use marijuana and thereby violate federal law.
APPEALS COURT CITES ‘PUBLIC INTEREST’
But a federal appeals
court saw the case differently. In September 1999, a three judge panel
of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Judge Breyer failed to consider
“the strong public interest in the availability of a doctor-prescribed
treatment that would help ameliorate the condition and relieve the pain
and suffering of a large group of persons with serious or fatal illnesses.”
The panel sent the case back for the judge to revise his order.
In July 2000, Judge Breyer ruled that the cannabis clubs were still legally barred from growing, selling, or possessing marijuana. But he said his order would not apply to club members who suffer from serious medical conditions, need marijuana to treat their conditions and have no reasonable legal alternatives that would afford the same degree of relief as marijuana. He set strict guidelines for those making that claim.
It was on this point that the Supreme Court was divided. The court’s conservative wing — Thomas, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy — ruled that possession of marijuana for medical uses also violates federal law.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the court majority went too far.
It should have left open the possibility that an individual could raise a medical necessity defense, especially a patient “for whom there is no alternative means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering,” Stevens said.
He also said the ruling could lead to friction between the federal government and states that have passed medical marijuana laws.
In other action Monday, the court:
NBC’s Pete Williams
and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.