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US Court Protects Physicians Who Recommend Marijuana

Oct 30, 2002

Physicians who recommend medical marijuana to sick patients cannot be stripped of their prescribing licenses even though marijuana is banned by federal law, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

In a decision hailed as a breakthrough by medical marijuana advocates, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that protects the constitutional right of physicians to recommend medical marijuana.

"An integral component of the practice of medicine is the communication between a doctor and a patient," the appeals court's three-judge panel said in its unanimous ruling. "Being a member of a regulated profession does not, as the government suggests, result in a surrender of First Amendment rights."

Federal officials have maintained a tough line against medical marijuana, taking action against medical marijuana providers even though nine states, including California, permit medical use of the drug under state law.

After lengthy litigation, the US Supreme Court ruled last year that clubs formed to provide marijuana to sick patients were breaking federal law, and law enforcement officials have gone after several such groups in recent months.

The 9th Circuit, which disagreed with the Supreme Court on the viability of California's medical marijuana law, said on Tuesday that physicians who "recommend"--rather than formally prescribe--medical marijuana were simply exercising their free speech rights and should not be punished.

"The record is replete with examples of physicians who claim a right to explain the medical benefits of marijuana to patients and whose exercise of that right has been chilled by the threat of federal investigation," the court said.

The court further rejected the government's assertion that, by recommending medical marijuana, physicians were inviting their patients to break the law, noting that there are legal ways patients might seek marijuana, such as through a government-approved research project or attempting to persuade the federal government to change the marijuana laws.

"Today's ruling is a major victory for patients and doctors," Gina Palencar, policy director of Americans for Medical Rights, said in a statement. "With physician-patient communications protected, patients in nine states can assert their rights to use marijuana as medicine."

© 2002 Reuters Ltd