Court rules medical marijuana laws don't shield users,
The court, in a 6-3 decision, concluded that state laws don't protect users from a federal ban on the drug. (Related: Read the decision) The decision is a stinging defeat for marijuana advocates who had successfully pushed 10 states to allow the drug's use to treat various illnesses.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the decision, said that Congress could change the law to allow medical use of marijuana.
Stevens said there are other legal options for patients, "but perhaps even more important than these legal avenues is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."
In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that states should be allowed to set their own rules.
"The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens," said O'Connor, who was joined by other states' rights advocates.
The closely watched case was an appeal by the Bush administration in a case that it lost in late 2003. At issue was whether the prosecution of medical marijuana users under the federal Controlled Substances Act was constitutional.
Under the Constitution, Congress may pass laws regulating a state's economic activity so long as it involves "interstate commerce" that crosses state borders. The California marijuana in question was homegrown, distributed to patients without charge and without crossing state lines.
The legal question presented a dilemma for the court's conservatives, who have pushed to broaden states' rights in recent years, invalidating federal laws dealing with gun possession near schools and violence against women on the grounds the activity was too local to justify federal intrusion.
The court heard the case last November, and there were hints then that justices were skeptical of the arguments of medical marijuana advocates.
Making an exception for patients, liberal Justice David Souter said in November, could open the door to widespread marijuana use and to fraudulent claims of illness by recreational pot smokers in California and the 10 other states that allow medical marijuana.
Justice Stephen Breyer, another liberal, said advocates for medical marijuana should first ask the federal Food and Drug Administration to reclassify pot as having a medical use. The U.S. government considers marijuana to be an intoxicant with no medicinal value. Citing California voters' approval of medical marijuana in 1996, Breyer said, "Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum."
The case was brought by Angel Raich and Diane Monson, critically ill Californians seeking to use marijuana under state law without facing federal prosecution. In court briefs, the women argued that marijuana provides relief for symptoms of an inoperable brain tumor, scoliosis and other maladies for which conventional medicine is of little or no help.
The women won an injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that blocks the U.S. government from arresting them or seizing their marijuana plants. But the government, which has made opposing medical marijuana part of its war on drugs since the Clinton administration, appealed to the Supreme Court.
The court's decision is likely to have an impact on California and the other states that permit marijuana use for medical reasons: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
The court ruled four years ago that cooperatives set up in California to grow pot for medical use could be prosecuted for drug trafficking. But that decision did not address marijuana grown by patients, which prompted the current case.
In Oregon, Kevin Neeley, a spokesman for state Attorney General Hardy Myers, said the decision could lead to federal action against Oregonians who hold medical marijuana cards.
"Today's decision gives federal authorities in Oregon enhanced footing should they choose to pursue a cardholder who is operating in compliance with Oregon law," he said. "The Attorney General has said from the outset that we would defend Oregon's law against federal challenges. In light of today's decision, we need to review whether or not we are still able to do that."
Contributing: USA TODAY's Richard Willing and The Associated Press.