SCOTUS won't hear challenge to California medical marijuana law

Two counties which had refused to comply with the law won't get any help from the Supreme Court -- at least, not yet.

By Alex Koppelman
Published May 18, 2009 7:15PM (EDT)

In a decision that medical marijuana advocates are hailing as a major victory, the Supreme Court announced Monday that it will not hear a challenge brought by two California counties against their state's medical marijuana law.

Both San Diego and San Bernardino counties have balked at complying with the law. At issue in this case was their refusal to participate in issuing cards that identify their bearer as being permitted under state law to use marijuana for medical purposes. The cards aren't mandatory for users, but help prevent mistaken arrest. The two counties argued that federal law, which still prohibits medical use of the drug, preempted the state law and invalidated the provision.

The court's decision does mean that the two counties will have to give in and start participating in the program, and that is of course a win for proponents of medical marijuana, not to mention those who use it. Still, celebration for anything beyond that is premature.

According to an opinion issued by California's Fourth District Court of Appeals (the last court to actually issue a ruling, rather than simply decide not to hear the case), the case was decided on a fairly narrow, and technical, basis. After deciding that the counties only had standing to sue over the identification cards, the court ruled that the provision wasn't unconstitutional, because, by itself, it didn't present a "significant" impediment to the federal law:

The identification card laws merely provide a mechanism allowing qualified California citizens, if they so elect, to obtain a form of identification that informs state law enforcement officers and others that they are medically exempted from the state's criminal sanctions for marijuana possession and use. Although California's decision to enact statutory exemptions from state criminal prosecution for such persons arguably undermines the goals of or is inconsistent with the [Controlled Substances Act] -- a question we do not decide here -- any alleged "obstacle" to the federal goals is presented by those California statutes that create the exemptions, not by the statutes providing a system for rapidly identifying exempt individuals. The identification card statutes impose no significant added obstacle to the purposes of the CSA not otherwise inherent in the provisions of the exemptions that Counties do not have standing to challenge...

We are unpersuaded by Counties' arguments that the identifications laws, standing alone, present significant obstacles to the purposes of the CSA. For example, Counties assert that identification cards make it "easier for individuals to use, possess, and cultivate marijuana" in violation of federal laws, without articulating why the absence of such a card -- which is entirely voluntary and not a prerequisite to the exemptions available for such underlying conduct -- renders the underlying conduct significantly more difficult.

Legally speaking, even those Californians who smoke marijuana for medical reasons and with their state's blessing are still subject to arrest by federal authorities. The Obama administration has announced that it will break with the policy of its predecessors and will not go after individuals authorized to use the drug under state law, but federal law still takes precedence, and a future administration could decide to change the policy again. So far, the Supreme Court's rulings on these questions have been varied, and none have been definitive -- it's possible that at some point in the future the court could decide to weigh in on the matter once and for all.

For now, though, as of last count, there were only a handful of people who can actually smoke marijuana in the U.S. completely legally. They were part of a program that ran from the late 1970's until the first Bush administration decided to shut it down, and were grandfathered in; their marijuana is supplied to them by the federal government.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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