The ruling has been made and D.A.R.E. would be proud. On Monday, our nation’s highest court unanimously said “no” to marijuana. The decision is an affront to California’s sovereignty, but more significantly, it leaves California’s gravely ill – many of whom rely on marijuana to ease chronic pain and nausea – with few legal remedies.
The conservative U.S. Supreme Court has once again allowed federal law to trump states’ rights. In this case, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op was sued for distributing marijuana to the seriously ill. The co-op claimed these patients had a “medical necessity” that usurped federal drug laws banning distribution of cannabis. The justices disagreed. In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law absolutely prohibits the distribution of marijuana throughout the United States, even in the case of seriously ill patients, and thereby invalidates measures adopted in California and eight other states. The high court ruled that “medical necessity” is no defense to the distribution or use of drugs – such as marijuana, ecstasy and heroin – classified “Schedule I” under the Controlled Substances Act 1970 (CSA). Although this ruling is a significant setback for the medical marijuana movement, it seems unlikely that it will completely derail efforts to provide pot as a medical option for the chronically ill. Where there is a will, there is a way.
California is a state forging a new direction in the War on Drugs. Proposition 215 passed with a significant majority in 1996 and was the first piece of legislation in the nation that allowed seriously ill people a right to obtain marijuana for medical purposes. In 2000, California voters overwhelmingly supported Prop 36, which endorsed drug treatment over incarceration. With such strong popular support for medical marijuana, it seems highly unlikely that California juries will persecute cancer or AIDS patients for resorting to cannabis to assuage their condition. In fact, with Prop 215 on the books, California’s law enforcement officials are barred from arresting or prosecuting anyone with a doctor’s recommendation for using medical marijuana. This leaves federal agents in sole charge of prosecuting medical marijuana use in California.
The Supreme Court’s decision will do nothing more than cripple cannabis clubs – such as the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op – drive medical marijuana use further underground and intensify debate over its drug scheduling.
In 1970, marijuana was placed under Schedule I of the CSA, alongside all other drugs with no known medical use. But evidence is mounting and support is solidifying for the medical efficacy of pot. The California Medical Association argues that there are appropriate medical circumstances for the use of doctor-recommended marijuana. A 1999 study commissioned by the U.S. drug czar concluded that marijuana eases pain and nausea in cancer patients. It is becoming increasingly difficult for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to ignore the logical, scientifically grounded arguments of medical marijuana advocates. Now is the time for him to consider rescheduling pot.
There is simply no justifiable reason why the demonization and irrational fear of massive cannabis distribution should interfere with both a state’s right to regulate the health of its citizens and the intensely personal and painstaking decisions made by physicians and their chronically ill patients.