Court Rules Against Ill Woman in Medical Marijuana Case
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A chronically ill woman in California has lost a legal battle with the federal government. She claims smoking marijuana is the only thing that is keeping her alive. But yesterday the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said she is not immune from prosecution under federal drug laws.
As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the ruling was the latest setback for medical marijuana.
RICHARD GONZALES: The case involves 41-year-old Angel Raich, a mother of two who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, arthritis and a variety of other ailments. Under doctors' recommendation she smokes marijuana several times a day to relieve her pain and stimulate her appetite. And that's okay under California's medical marijuana law, approved by voters back in 1996. But the state law conflicts with federal drug laws, so Raich sued the U.S. government preemptively to avoid being arrested for smoking pot.
Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit denied her bid for immunity from potential federal prosecution. Raich was clearly stunned by the ruling and says she's in shock.
Ms. ANGEL RAICH (Medicinal Marijuana Advocate): It's not every day in this country that someone's right to life is taken away from them. And today you are looking at someone that really is walking dead.
GONZALES: The decision marks the second time in two years that the courts have ruled against Raich. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana users and their suppliers are not immune from federal drug laws, even if they live in states such as California where medical marijuana is legal.
However, the appellate court did appear to leave the door open for Raich to continue testing the issue. The judges said that Raich might be able to claim a medical necessity to smoke pot if she were arrested and prosecuted. Raich's attorney and husband, Robert Raich, found another glimmer of hope in this quote from Judge Harry Pregerson's opinion.
Mr. ROBERT RAICH (Attorney for Angel Raich): Specifically, he said, quote, "for now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental, although that day has not yet dawned."
GONZALES: Ten other states have joined California in legalizing medical marijuana, but federal laws still does not recognize a fundamental right to use it. Robert DuPont, former drug czar in the Nixon and Ford administrations, says some components of marijuana may have a medicinal effect but smoking it will never be scientifically approved. That's why he supports yesterday's ruling by the 9th Circuit.
Mr. ROBERT DUPONT (Former Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): Smoking marijuana is not medically necessary. But the fact is that we have a medical approval system in this country that is based on science, not on voters going to the booth and supporting the propositions. And that's basically what's being affirmed here.
GONZALES: A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration said the ruling would have no impact on its ongoing enforcement of drug laws. In recent weeks, DEA agents have raided nearly a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries in Southern California.
However, there are over 200 such dispensaries in Los Angeles County alone. As for Angel Raich, she says she has no intention of stopping smoking marijuana. She has said in the past that Marinol, the legalized pill form of pot, is ineffective. No decision has been made on whether to appeal the ruling.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.