Monday, May 14, 2001

takes a hit
in top court

Sick patients are not
exempt from federal law,
the justices rule

Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON >> The Supreme Court handed medical marijuana users a defeat today, ruling that a federal law classifying the drug as illegal has no exception for ill patients.

The 8-0 decision was a disappointment to many sufferers of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses. They have said the drug helped enormously in combatting the devastating effects of their diseases.

The court's action does not strike down state laws allowing medical use of marijuana, but leaves those distributing the drug for that purpose open to prosecution.

Hawaii State Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, whose agency is charged with administering Hawaii's law, doesn't see any change to the current practice of registering medical marijuana users.

He said that patients are always told the federal law -- which makes marijuana still an illegal substance -- is still in place.

He said Hawaii will continue to register people who want to use marijuana for medical purpose.

In Hawaii, 80 people have registered to use marijuana since the program began operating Dec. 28. The state Narcotics Enforcement Division handles the Hawaii registry.

A patient in Hawaii is allowed to grow and possess marijuana for medical purposes, but the state regulation is silent on how a patient may obtain it, since federal law still prohibits trafficking of the drug.

Pamela Lichty, board president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation, has said physicians in Hawaii are reluctant to participate because they are unclear about the relationship between federal and state laws.

Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in today's marijuana ruling because his brother, a federal judge, initially presided over the case.

"In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a government-approved research project)," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court.

Thomas noted the act states marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use."

The federal government triggered the case in 1998, seeking an injunction against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and five other marijuana distributors.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by two colleagues, said the court majority went too far.

It should have left open the possibility that an individual could raise a medical necessity defense, especially a patient "for whom there is no alternative means of avoiding starvation or extraordinary suffering," Stevens said.

He said the ruling could lead to friction between the federal government and states that have passed medical marijuana laws.

"This begs the question, What will the multitude of federal prosecutors do in the nine states that have passed medical access laws?" for marijuana, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Norml Foundation. Norml stands for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"Surely the prosecutors can't hope to arrest and attempt to prosecute individual medical marijuana patients," he said.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, brother of the justice, sided with the government. All the clubs except the Oakland group eventually closed, and the Oakland club turned to registering potential marijuana recipients while it awaited a final ruling.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, ruling that medical necessity is a legal defense. Charles Breyer followed up by issuing strict guidelines for making that claim.

Voters in Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have approved ballot initiatives allowing the use of medical marijuana. In Hawaii, the legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year.

The cooperative argued that a drug may not yet have achieved general acceptance as a medical treatment, but may still have medical benefits to a particular patient or class of patients.

Thomas said the argument cannot overcome the intent of Congress in approving the statute.

Advocates of medical marijuana say the drug can ease side effects from chemotherapy, save nauseated AIDS patients from wasting away or even allow multiple sclerosis sufferers to rise from a wheelchair and walk.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin