Supreme Court Asserts Federal Oversight of Marijuana Use

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that people who use marijuana for medical reasons can be prosecuted by the federal government, even when a state sanctions medicinal use of the drug. Ten states allow people to take marijuana under a doctor's prescription.

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The Supreme Court handed advocates of medical marijuana a major defeat today. It ruled that even in states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana, federal authorities may prosecute sick people who use the drug under a doctor's supervision. NPR's Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

In November, Montana became the 10th state to approve the medical use of marijuana, and as in many other states, the vote was by initiative at the ballot box. But even as the initiative was winning, the federal government was in the Supreme Court contending that federal drug laws override state drug laws. Today the justices, by a 6-to-3 vote, agreed.

The case before the court began over two years ago when federal drug enforcement agents raided the home of California resident Diane Monson, who used marijuana under a doctor's supervision to relieve severe pain. Local sheriff's deputies defended her right to grow marijuana for her personal medical use under state law. And a stand-off between federal and state law enforcement ensued, with federal agents eventually seizing six plants. Monson, along with another California resident, Angel Raich, then challenged the right of the federal government to prosecute them.

Raich, a 39-year-old mother, suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. She says that before she started using marijuana to ease her symptoms, she was in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side of her body, in acute pain and rapidly losing weight. Now out of the wheelchair, she's a functional person.

Ms. ANGEL RAICH: I really feel strongly that medical cannabis is my miracle.

TOTENBERG: Raich's reaction today was muted.

Ms. RAICH: I'm still kind of in shock, to be honest with you.

TOTENBERG: Today's Supreme Court majority was not unmindful of the dilemma Raich now faces. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged that Raich and others have made out a good case that they will suffer irreparable harm and that despite Congress' judgment to the contrary, marijuana does have a valid therapeutic purpose. `Nonetheless,' said Stevens, `it is not the court's job to decide whether Congress acted wisely, but whether Congress properly exercised its power under the Constitution. In this case,' said Stevens, `it is well-settled law that when Congress seeks to regulate or ban a commodity for which there is a national market, federal law trumps state law. In enacting the federal drug law in 1970,' said Stevens, `Congress made a rational judgment that any exceptions to the ban on marijuana would create a gaping hole in the federal system of regulation.'

In the wake of today's ruling, state laws are, however, still on the books, meaning that state law enforcement will permit the medical use of marijuana, but federal law enforcement authorities will also be able to prosecute those who try to use marijuana for medical purposes. Angel Raich says she will take that risk. She had initially said she would move to Canada if she lost her case because without cannabis, her doctor says she would likely die. But now, she says, she will stay here. Her son is due to be inducted into the Army later this month.

Ms. RAICH: This is still my country. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to continue to fight.

Mr. ROBERT DuPONT (Former Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse): From my point of view, that's more closely related to drug abuse than it is to medicine. People don't grow opium poppies to get morphine. That's just not the way medicine is done.

TOTENBERG: That's Robert DuPont, who was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the 1970s and served as drug czar for Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Mr. DuPONT: This is really a tipping point on this issue, this Supreme Court ruling. So I think you're going to see a whole lot less interest in `smoked marijuana as a medicine' going forward. And I think it's going to be much harder for the proponents to get support.

TOTENBERG: He may be right. Congressman Barney Frank has a bill pending in Congress that would defer to state law on the medical use of marijuana, but even Congressman Frank says the odds of it passing are minimal.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Now that the court has made clear, the Supreme Court, that it's not going to intervene, that this is entirely up to Congress, it may pick up a little support. But it's still not imminent. I acknowledge that.

TOTENBERG: One interesting facet of today's Supreme Court ruling was the lineup of the justices, with the court's most ardent states' rights advocates in dissent: Justices Thomas, O'Connor and Chief Justice Rehnquist. Two of those three just happened to be among the most conservative members of the court, too. Wrote Thomas, `Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold or crossed state lines. If Congress can regulate this, it can regulate virtually anything.'

Said O'Connor, `If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana initiative. But this law and this case exemplify the role of the states as laboratories contemplated under the Constitution.'

And, indeed, today marked something of a retreat for the court from cases of the last decade, in which a majority of justices seemed to defer to states' rights. Harvard law Professor Charles Fried served as solicitor general in the Reagan administration. Today's ruling, he said, proves that the court's devotion to states' rights is extremely limited when the federal government intercedes.

Professor CHARLES FRIED (Harvard): If it somehow matters enough, they're going to find a way to say it's all right.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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