11/28/2000 - Tuesday
The Associated Press
Washington - The Supreme Court yesterday entered the debate over medical marijuana, agreeing to decide whether the drug can be provided to patients out of "medical necessity" even though federal law makes its distribution a crime.
The justices said they will hear the Clinton administration's effort to bar a California group from providing the drug to seriously ill patients for pain and nausea relief.
A lower court decision allowing the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative to distribute the drug "threatens the government's ability to enforce the federal drug laws," government lawyers said.
The California group, however, says that for some patients, marijuana is "the only medicine that has proven effective in relieving their conditions or symptoms." The group's lawyer, Annette Carnegie, said yesterday the federal Controlled Substances Act does not prohibit the distribution of marijuana for medical reasons.
"Those choices, we believe, are best made by physicians and not by the government," she said. Marijuana has been effective in relieving nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, weight loss in HIV-positive patients and in reducing pain, she said.
Eight states in addition to California have medical-marijuana laws in place or approved by voters: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado. Residents of Washington, D.C., voted in 1998 to allow the medical use of marijuana, but Congress blocked the measure from becoming law.
Justice Department lawyers said Congress has decided that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use." In August, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the California organization from distributing marijuana while the government pursued its appeal.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the case. His brother, Charles, a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco, previously barred distribution of marijuana, only to have his decision reversed by a federal appeals court.
California's law, passed by the voters in 1996, authorizes the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes upon a doctor's recommendation.
In the appeal granted Supreme Court review, Justice Department lawyers said the appeals court "seriously erred" in deciding the federal law allowed a medical-necessity defense.
The Oakland club's lawyers said "the voters of California have spoken" in approving the medical-marijuana measure. Congress has not explicitly barred a medical necessity defense against the federal anti-drug law, the lawyers added.
On another issue, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by a condemned killer from Texas whose lawyers say he is mentally retarded. The court said it will use the case of Johnny Paul Penry to clarify how much opportunity jurors in death-penalty cases must have to consider the defendant's mental capacity.
The court also: Heard arguments on how to judge when race plays too large a role in drawing election districts. The North Carolina case is a follow-up to the justices' landmark 1993 ruling that election districts drawn to help minorities might violate white voters' rights.
Said it will use a dispute over health-care benefits paid to a man injured in a car accident to clarify whether health plans can sue to enforce some requirements. A California company says it can sue in federal court to force a man to give back his health benefits because he later got payment from another source.
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