Medical Marijuana Distribution Nixed

Wednesday, August 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Tuesday barred distribution of marijuana to people in California whose doctors recommend it for medicinal purposes.

The court, voting 7-1 to grant an emergency Clinton administration request, postponed the effect of federal court rulings that would have allowed a California club to distribute the illegal drug for medicinal use.

Government lawyers had sought emergency help from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who referred the request to the full court.

Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented. He said the government ``has failed to demonstrate that the denial of necessary medicine to seriously ill and dying patients will advance the public interest or that the failure to enjoin the distribution of such medicine will impair the orderly enforcement of federal criminal statutes.''

Justice Stephen G. Breyer disqualified himself from the case. His brother, Charles, a federal trial judge in San Francisco, previously had barred distribution of marijuana only to have his decision reversed by a federal appeals court.

The highest court's action, which came in a brief order, was the latest development in a conflict between federal narcotics laws and a 1996 California voters' initiative known as Proposition 215.

The state initiative allows seriously ill patients to grow and use marijuana for pain relief, with a doctor's recommendation, without state penalties. But federal law says marijuana has no medical purposes and cannot be administered safely under medical supervision.

Initiatives similar to California's have been passed in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.

In the California case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that ``medical necessity'' is a ``legally cognizable defense'' to a charge of distributing drugs in violation of a federal law, the Controlled Substances Act.

Because of that ruling, Judge Charles Breyer said the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative could provide marijuana to people facing imminent harm from serious medical conditions and for whom legal alternatives to marijuana do not work or cause intolerable side effects.

Justice Department lawyers called the 9th Circuit court's ``unprecedented ruling'' a dangerous one because it created ``incentives for drug manufacturers and distributors to invoke the asserted needs of others as a justification for their drug trafficking.''

The government's emergency request said allowing such distribution of marijuana would ``promote disrespect and disregard for an act of Congress that is central to combating illicit drug trafficking and use by giving a judicial stamp of approval to the open and notorious distribution of (illegal) substances to potentially thousands of users without any of the strict controls required'' by federal law.

In response, lawyers for the marijuana club argued that the government's emergency request be rejected. ``The government has provided no evidence that states ... that have passed medical cannabis laws have any difficulty prosecuting violations of their drug statutes,'' they said.

The case is U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, A-145.