Court Hears Medical Marijuana Arguments, 12/01/04
This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the legality of state laws that allow chronically sick people to use marijuana if a doctor prescribes it. The federal government wants to be able to enforce federal laws that ban the practice, saying it's essential in the war on drugs.
Ten states have laws that allow people to use marijuana to treat illnesses if prescribed by a doctor, but federal law says that the practice is illegal.
The federal government argues that it has the right to override state laws in this situation because the issue is one of interstate commerce. The commerce clause of the Constitution gives Congress the right to regulate trade "among the several states."
The plaintiffs in the case argue that homegrown medical marijuana is not sold and is therefore not related to interstate commerce.
The outcome of the case could impact the relationship between states and the federal government for years to come.
Ashcroft v. Raich
The case now before the Supreme Court is called Ashcroft v. Raich. It concerns Angel Raich, a 39-year-old California mother of two who uses marijuana to treat the pain caused by a brain tumor and other illnesses.
"This is medicine. I actually don't like smoking or vaporizing or using cannabis, but it's the only way that I can keep from dying," Raich said. Without the marijuana, she would not feel well enough to eat, she explained.
After the federal government stepped up efforts to prosecute the suppliers of medical marijuana in 2001, Raich and another ill woman, Diane Monson, sued the federal government for the right to obtain the drug for medicinal purposes. California, where both live, legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Other states with similar laws include Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Raich and Monson won their case against the government in the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled 2-1 that the federal prosecution of medical marijuana users in states with medical marijuana laws is unconstitutional if the drug is not sold, not transported across state lines and used for medicinal purposes.
The federal government appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The case highlights the balance of power between the states and the federal government -- an issue as old as the country itself.
Throughout the last 10 years, the current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist with a majority of conservative judges, has slowly reduced Congress' ability to pass laws that intrude on matters traditionally handled by states, including gun laws and laws about violence toward women.
In 1995 the high court said Congress was limited to passing laws on only certain topics, including raising taxes, declaring war and interstate commerce. This strengthened the doctrine of "federalism" -- the rights of states to decide certain matters for themselves.
Legal experts say that the medical marijuana case is especially interesting because the doctrine of federalism -- often used by conservatives to keep the centralized federal government out of local issues -- is now being used by liberals.
Bill Stuntz, a professor of criminal law at Harvard University, points out that although conservatives want to limit the scope of government in everyday life, their alignment with federalism grew out of specific historical circumstances. From Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act, the federal government was more active than state governments and Congress was under almost unbroken Democratic control for half a century. That meant conservatives had to look away from Washington, to the states, to curb some of the federal laws.
"It's not inherently conservative. It cuts against whatever side is on top in the national government, and now that's the right, not the left," Stuntz told the Boston Globe.
But some Supreme Court watchers think conservative justices, who have upheld states rights in the past, will argue that the right of the federal government to regulate the drug trade trumps a state's right to legalize marijuana for sick people.
"Justice Scalia and Justice Kennedy, two justices who have been part of that five-justice majority to strike down other laws in the past, suggested today by their questions that perhaps the mere possession of this kind of marijuana, the personal use of it and growing it in your own home, that could also affect commerce because that means you're not out buying the drugs on the market," Chicago Tribune Supreme Court reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg told the NewsHour.
"So that could have some impact on commerce that may be enough to allow Congress to step in here, pass this federal law and regulate this kind of drug use," she added.
--Compiled by Annie Schleicher, Online NewsHour
© 2004 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions