Cracking down on the terminally ill

Today's ruling on medical marijuana may set the stage for a showdown between the feds and local law enforcement -- and it definitely means more pain for the chronically sick.

By Mark Follman
Published June 6, 2005 8:43PM (EDT)

Today's Supreme Court ruling upholding federal prosecution of medical marijuana users has the war on drugs -- a smashing success story, as we all know -- back in the headlines. John Walters, drug czar under the Bush White House, weighed in with this statement: "Today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."

"Our national medical system relies on proven scientific research, not popular opinion," Walters told The Associated Press.

Advocates for the drug's legal use by the terminally ill saw the ruling differently.

"The federal government still has a choice -- it can waste taxpayer dollars by going after sick and dying patients or go after individuals who pose a real danger to society," said Dan Abrahamson of the Drug Policy Alliance, according to Reuters.

Barbara Bergman, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "If our Constitution means anything, it should mean that the 'war on drugs' cannot be made to be a war on the quality of life of chronically or terminally ill Americans."

The case focused on two California women, Diane Monson and Angel McClary Raich, who have used marijuana to get relief from excruciating pain, which is permitted by state law. What's striking is Justice John Paul Stevens' strong ambivalence in writing the majority opinion: He said the case was made difficult by the women's "strong arguments that they will suffer irreparable harm" without marijuana. However, he wrote, "well-settled law controls our answer."

"The Controlled Substances Act is a valid exercise of federal power," Stevens said, "even as applied to the troubling facts of this case."

As Stevens pointed out, the question before the court was not whether it was wise to enforce federal law under the circumstances, but only whether Congress has the power to adopt such a law, versus the right of states to decide the issue. (In that regard, some conservatives on the high court took the opportunity to dissent -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was joined on most points by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote, "The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens.")

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said he was disappointed with the ruling but not surprised, nor was he overly concerned about its impact. "People shouldn't panic," he said, "there aren't going to be many changes." Local and state officers handle most marijuana prosecutions and must still follow any state laws that protect patients. "Nothing is different today than it was two days ago in terms of real world impact," Lockyer said. "There's a California law which conflicts with the federal law. Federal law treats heroin and marijuana the same, which is illogical."

Ultimately, the democratic process might be more important than the legal challenges presented by the case, Justice Stevens further explained, adding that supporters of medical marijuana "may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."

That democratic process, though, can be excruciatingly slow -- and for terminally ill patients like Monson and Raich who are in a lot of pain, their day to be heard on Capitol Hill probably can't come too soon.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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