Medical Marijuana Ruling Has Far-Reaching Impacts

The U.S. Supreme Court's 6-to-3 ruling Monday reinforced the supremacy of federal laws prohibiting marijuana use over state laws allowing it. The decision could have a broader impact on other issues involving states' rights, such as Oregon's right-to-die law.

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In California, the state attorney general is telling patients not to panic if they rely on treatments using marijuana. The US Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday affecting states that allow the drug for medical purposes. The court says state laws can remain in affect, meaning patients can still be treated. But by a six to three vote, the justices said federal authorities can crack down if they choose. The ruling is likely to have widespread effects as we're learning from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

It issue in the case was a California law enacted overwhelmingly by referendum that legalized the medical use of marijuana. Nine other states have similar laws. The federal government, however, contended that the federal ban on marijuana trumped all those state laws. Federal agents began raiding places that grew marijuana for sick patients and bringing prosecutions. Two of the patients then went to court to bar the federal government's action, contending that the marijuana they grew or used was not sold for profit, nor did it cross state lines.

One of those patients is Angel Raich, who has an inoperable brain tumor. She and her doctor said that medical marijuana transformed her life, allowing her to leave her wheelchair and lead a functional existence as a mother.

Yesterday, however, the Supreme Court ruled against her. Writing for the six-member court majority, Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged that there is considerable evidence that marijuana does have legitimate therapeutic uses. But, he said, `The court's job is not to decide whether Congress acted wisely, but whether it acted within its power. It is well settled,' said Stevens, `that regarding a commodity for which there is a national market federal law supercedes state law.' Dissenting were Justices O'Connor, Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist.

For Angel Raich, the decision was wrenching. She had previously said she would leave the country if she lost so she could continue to get marijuana. But yesterday she said she would stay even if it meant risking arrest. Her son, she said, is being inducted into the Army later this month.

Ms. ANGEL RAICH (Medical Marijuana Patient): I have to stay here and fight for my life for him. He's fi--going to go fight for us, so I have to continue to fight for all of those patients who need this medicine.

TOTENBERG: Many in the medical community were also upset by yesterday's decision. Jerry Kassirer is the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and a professor at Tufts Medical School. In 1997, shortly after the Institute of Medicine conducted a survey of existing data and concluded that marijuana did help cancer and HIV patients, among others, Kassirer wrote an editorial in The New England Journal urging the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

Dr. JERRY KASSIRER (Tufts Medical School): Well, I think this is very unfortunate that patients who are desperately sick and have certain kinds of symptoms will not be able to use marijuana in the smoke form, in part because the form of marijuana that's in pill form is not as nearly as effective and useful.

TOTENBERG: Dr. Donald Abrams is chief of hematology and oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and the principal investigator in some recently concluded studies on the use of marijuana in treating HIV and cancer patients.

Dr. DONALD ABRAMS (San Francisco General Hospital): I would hope that this is not going to open the floodgates of having the federal government spend a lot of money to confiscate marijuana from patients who need it when they should open their eyes and realize we have a very big problem with methamphetamine in California and all over the country that needs to be tackled before they waste energy and resources taking medicine away from patients.

TOTENBERG: But those who have long opposed the legal use of medical marijuana saw yesterday's ruling as pivotal. Dr. Robert DuPont served as drug czar in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Dr. ROBERT DuPONT (Former Drug Czar): This is really a tipping point on this issue, the 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: Yesterday's ruling was also a profound setback for advocates of states' rights and may well have repercussions in a Supreme Court case scheduled for next term testing the Bush administration's challenge to the Oregon right to die law. That law also involves the use of drugs regulated by federal law. Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried.

Professor CHARLES FRIED (Harvard Law School): The decision here has enough in it that you could stretch it to cover that.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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