San Diego Files Suit Against Medical Marijuana Law

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the legality of California's Medical Marijuana Law. The state is one of 11 across the country in which the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal.

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The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal in 11 states, but federal law still prohibits the drug for any purpose. This conflict has produced an uneasy standoff between local, state, and federal officials. Now some local officials in San Diego are taking an aggressive approach in this matter, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: California voters were the first to approve medical marijuana back in 1996 when the passed Proposition 215. Since then, 10 other states have adopted similar laws. Local officials in all 11 states have struggled to find ways to insure that patients who want the drug can obtain it, legally, conveniently, and safely. To that end, California legislators passed a law instructing counties to establish identification card programs for patients and their caregivers.

ID: Sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in, and what you think is right.

GONZALES: And so to do what they believed in, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors filed suit in federal court today, challenging the legality of California's medical marijuana law. John Sampson is San Diego County council.

JOHN SAMPSON: According to our principals of democratic government here in our country, federal law is supreme. So we're going to be asking a court to review this and to determine whether or not, in fact, the federal law that makes the use of marijuana a crime preempts the California state law.

GONZALES: Somehow those San Diego lawyers think that they have some type of legal claim that the top federal lawyers for the last 10 years haven't been able to come up with. I'm, I'm quite dubious that they will have any success in court.

GONZALES: That despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled last June that federal authorities can prosecute patients who use medical marijuana, even in states like California that have medical marijuana laws. Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, says that ruling, however, isn't pertinent in this case.

JONATHAN ADLER: California cannot immunize its citizens from being prosecuted under federal law, that's to be sure. But merely because federal law criminalizes something that is legal in California, doesn't mean California has to criminalize it as well. And that seems to me to be the central issue here.

GONZALES: Politically speaking, the County Board of Supervisors is known to be a very conservative body. Still, their suit challenging medical marijuana shocks Sam Popkin, who teaches Politics at UC San Diego.

SAM POPKINS: This is state that passed the Stem Cell Referenda, this is a state that supported medical marijuana. It's a surprising thing that somebody would try and challenge that, and think that they would gain locally by doing so.

GONZALES: Public opinion does seem to be riding against the supervisors. 10 years ago, 55 percent of San Diegans voted for medical marijuana. More recently, a poll financed by The Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-medical marijuana group, found that 78 percent of county voters opposed the lawsuit. But County Supervisor Diane Jacob is undeterred.

JACOB: This is not about popular opinion, this is not about a majority of San Diegans, or a majority of Californians. It's about the law, and it's about resolving a clash between state and federal laws. And that's all we're trying to accomplish here.

GONZALES: If the San Diego County Supervisors' suit is successful, it could have far-reaching implications for medical marijuana laws in other states.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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