The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal law bars the distribution of marijuana even to people who say they must have it to alleviate symptoms of serious illness, dealing a setback to the movement for "medical marijuana" laws and limiting the impact of the state laws already on the books.
Ruling 8 to 0 in a case involving a California "cannabis cooperative" that supplied the drug to patients suffering from cancer, AIDS and other illnesses, the court said federal anti-drug law allows no "medical necessity" exception to the general prohibition on selling or growing marijuana.
Federal law "reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The court upheld federal authorities' ability to obtain a court order shutting down the cooperative.
The ruling does not directly invalidate "medical marijuana" laws on the books in nine states, mostly in the West. Those states remain free to choose not to prosecute people who use marijuana for medical purposes, and the federal government rarely prosecutes individuals for marijuana use.
However, in those states, the ruling is likely to doom large, public distribution centers -- confining the use of "medical marijuana" to private, small-scale settings outside the usual scope of federal enforcement efforts.
In addition, the court may have deterred other states from joining the "medical marijuana" movement, which appeared to be gaining popular acceptance in recent years.
"The Supreme Court's 8-0 decision is a strong endorsement of congressional legislation banning marijuana production and distribution under federal law," said Barry McCaffrey, who served as federal drug control policy director during the Clinton administration.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said the ruling was "unfortunate." He added that "the responsibility for determining what is necessary to provide for public health and safety has traditionally been left to the states."
Chuck Thomas, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbies for medical marijuana laws, said: "My two biggest fears are that it will be somewhat more inconvenient for medical marijuana users . . . and that next year state legislators will say 'Oh, no, now we can't pass a new state law.' "
Supporters of medical marijuana say the drug is often the only source of relief for cancer patients experiencing excruciating pain or AIDS patients feeling crippling nausea. Some anorexics have used marijuana to maintain their appetites.
Opponents say that there are abundant legal alternatives, including a synthetic form of the active ingredient in marijuana, and that the medical marijuana movement's real goal is de facto legalization of the drug for recreational use.
The issue forces national politicians to balance their reluctance to appear soft on drugs against the fact that state voters have recently expressed sympathy for what medical marijuana advocates call "compassionate use" of the drug.
As a candidate last year, President Bush expressed sympathy for states' rights to devise their own marijuana policies at variance with the federal approach. When the case was argued before the Supreme Court in March, Bush issued a statement expressing his personal opposition to medical marijuana laws, and expressing support for the Justice Department's position in the case, which was initiated under President Bill Clinton.
The case centered on the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, one of several "cannabis clubs" that sprang up after California voters approved a referendum in 1996 permitting people with notes from their doctors to use marijuana.
Choosing not to prosecute the club in a state in which a criminal trial jury would be drawn from the same population that had voted in favor of medical marijuana, the Clinton Justice Department asked a federal judge to issue an injunction closing the cooperative -- which he did in 1998.
That judge, Charles Breyer, is the brother of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who recused himself from the matter when it came to the Supreme Court.
The cooperative appealed to the West Coast-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It ordered Charles Breyer to rewrite his order to permit the cooperative to continue distributing marijuana to those who could prove that it was a "medical necessity."
Arguing that this could create a massive loophole in federal drug laws, the Clinton administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which issued its own order last August keeping the cooperative shut until it could decide the case.
In a concurring opinion yesterday, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed with Thomas's opinion but expressed concern that it may have been too far-reaching.
"Most notably, whether the medical necessity defense might be available to a seriously ill patient for whom there is no other means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering is a difficult issue that is not presented here," Stevens wrote.
In addition, Stevens said: "The overbroad language of the Court's opinion is especially unfortunate given the importance of showing respect for the sovereign states that comprise our Federal Union."
"We share Justice Stevens's concern," Thomas replied. "However . . . because federal courts interpret, rather than author, the federal criminal code, we are not at liberty to rewrite it."
The case is U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, No. 00-151.

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