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Medical Marijuana

May 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s eight to nothing ruling against marijuana’s medical use came in a case brought by the federal government after California voters passed a 1996 initiative legalizing such use. This case marked the High Court’s first foray into the medical marijuana debate. Here to discuss today’s ruling and its impact is Marcia Coyle, Supreme Court correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the National Law Journal. NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenberg is on maternity leave.

Welcome back, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: First, briefly recap this case, what it’s about, how it ended up in the court.

MARCIA COYLE: Shortly after California, voters adopted the referendum in 1996. A number of non-profit organizations formed by physicians and others created group clubs to provide a safe outlet for patients who had prescriptions for medical marijuana use. The federal government wanted to stop these clubs because they felt that their operation violated federal law. They went into federal court to seek an injunction to stop their operation. The Oakland, California, Cannabis Club was one of the organizations that was in court, and they fought this case all the way up to the Supreme Court.

MARGARET WARNER: So what was the Court’s reasoning today in upholding the Government’s position?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, this was really a very straightforward reading of federal law. The Justices unanimously said that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that bans the manufacture and distribution of marijuana contains no exception for the medical use of marijuana.

MARGARET WARNER: So if the federal law is so clear, why did these clubs even think they had a legal leg to stand on? And what’s this doctrine of medical necessity that they cited?

MARCIA COYLE: There’s a very old legal concept that’s known as necessity that people can use as a defense when they break federal laws. For example, you’re a prisoner in a prison that has horrible conditions; you escape. You’ve broken a federal law. But when you’re brought up on charges, you claim as a defendant that you had to escape; it was a necessity because the conditions were so bad.

You’re essentially saying, “I chose the lesser of two evils here.” And that’s what these clubs were saying on behalf of the patients who needed marijuana; we have to break this law. In defense, it’s needed to break this law in order for our patients to be able to live, to continue to be viable contributors to society.

MARGARET WARNER: So this majority opinion, or unanimous opinion -

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: — written by Justice Thomas, what did he say against that argument about medical necessity or necessity? Why didn’t it apply in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Thomas said that Congress made it very clear under 1970 federal law that marijuana was what we call a schedule one drug. That’s the most restrictive regulation of an illegal drug. If Congress had meant to include a medical necessity defense, it wouldn’t have made it a schedule one drug, because one of the criteria for getting on schedule one is that there is no generally accepted medical use of the drug.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, the law in this case trumped this doctrine, this idea of necessity?

MARCIA COYLE: That was Justice Thomas’s view.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed with the result, but he said he didn’t necessarily agree with all of Justice Thomas’s reasoning, and two other Justices joined in that.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain what that said.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Stevens felt that some of the language that Justice Thomas used went a little too broadly. I mean, he felt that it was true that the federal law was clear– there’s no medical necessity defense for the distribution and manufacture of marijuana– but he said it may be possible that an individual patient could raise this defense if that patient had no alternative way of avoiding, for example, starvation or extraordinary suffering, so he left the door open for maybe a case involving individuals. Remember, this case before the Court involved clubs who were distributing marijuana, not patients who were using it.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s what federal law also talks about.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Manufacture and distribution.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did you read Justice Thomas’s majority opinion on that point, in other words, on how broad he thought it was?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think Justice Thomas also left a door open. I think if an individual patient brought a case and claimed that they had violated the law but had as their defense medical necessity, that he might very well find that there was no medical necessity defense under this particular law; but what he said was, “we’re not ruling today on whether there are constitutional claims that a patient might bring.” For example, we have due process rights; they’re violated by this federal law, or a patient who claims Congress exceeded its authority by lawmaking in this particular area.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. He said none of that is before them, so they weren’t going to…

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain how the California voters approving this initiative plays in or didn’t play in to this case.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, what was really before the Court was not whether the initiative or the referendum or even any other state law was legal or illegal; what was before the Court was an interpretation of the federal law, so what we have right now is we have about eight or nine states that have said to people who need medical marijuana, you may use it; you will not be prosecuted under state law. Now while you may not… You will not be prosecuted under those state laws, with the Supreme Court’s ruling today, you may be prosecuted under federal law.

MARGARET WARNER: And how likely is that?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think it may be very unlikely. Most marijuana possession and use prosecutions are done under state law. They’re considered low-level crimes. Unless the federal government is going to make a policy statement that it will begin to look for cancer victims, AIDS victims, and others who need marijuana for medical use, I think it’s unlikely we’ll see widespread federal prosecutions. I think what the Government was really concerned about here was an organization, a club, that was distributing marijuana, perhaps without clear guidelines on who should get it or for what use it should be me.

MARGARET WARNER: But, theoretically, how would a patient go about getting this? I mean, are you talking about that the exemption that Justice Stevens might have been talking about is only if say the patient grew their own? How do they then know how much to take?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, that’s a very good question, and I think what happens now for patients, in states like California, these clubs did provide a safe outlet and an accurate way of receiving their marijuana under prescription, and they did that in order to keep patients from having to turn to the black market or, as you suggest, growing it in their backyard. And I think now that’s pretty much left to a patient who needs it, unless maybe someday a state passes a law creating a state-sponsored outlet for marijuana. There again, though, we may see a clash with the federal law.

MARGARET WARNER: So then the only other recourse or the only other way to change this, would be politically, to go back to Congress and try to get this reclassified?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it definitely throws the ball back into Congress’s court. But I think it was only in 1988 that Congress issued… enacted a resolution that essentially said, “states, you may be legalizing marijuana, but we have a federal law, and we’re not changing it.”

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Marcia Coyle, thanks very much.

MARCIA COYLE: You’re very welcome.