US Appeals Court Rules for Cannabis Clubs, Clears Way for Distribution to Patients With Medical Necessity 9/17/99

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Dale Gieringer, California NORML,

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 13, 1999: In a victory for California's medical marijuana clubs, a panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ordered U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer to consider modifying his injunction against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative (OCBC) so as to permit distribution of marijuana to patients who have medical necessity for it. The decision is the first appellate ruling to seriously limit the federal government's power to prohibit marijuana.

Judge Breyer had previously enjoined the clubs from distributing medical cannabis, ruling that the government had broad latitude to do so under the Controlled Substances Act. In its ruling, the Appeals Court found that Judge Breyer had erred in failing to consider modifying his injunction to consider the needs of seriously ill patients.

"OCBC presented evidence that there is a class of people with serious medical conditions for whom the use of cannabis is necessary in order to treat or alleviate those conditions or their symptoms; who will suffer serious harm if they are denied cannabis; and for whom there is no legal alternative to cannabis for the effective treatment of their medical conditions because they have tried other alternatives and found that they are ineffective, or that they result in intolerable side effects," the court wrote.

"The government, in contrast, has yet to identify any interest it may have in blocking the distribution of cannabis to those with medical needs, relying exclusively on its general interest in enforcing its statutes. It has offered no evidence to rebut OCBC's evidence that cannabis is the only effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill individuals, and it confirmed at oral argument that it sees no need to offer any. It simply rests on the erroneous argument that the district judge was compelled as a matter of law to issue an injunction that is coextensive with the facial scope of the statute."

The court ruled that Judge Breyer had also erred in failing to take account of the public interest. It noted that the OCBC had identified a strong public interest in the availability of doctor-prescribed marijuana and that the City of Oakland had declared a public health emergency in response to the district court's refusal to modify its injunction against the OCBC. The Appeals Court denied two other motions by the defense on procedural grounds, ruling that it could not adjudicate whether the OCBC was immunized from federal law by being deputized by the Oakland City Council, or whether Judge Breyer had erroneously found the OCBC in contempt of a preliminary injunction.

California NORML hailed the Ninth Circuit Court's decision as a potentially major breakthrough in the federal government's legal stonewall around medical marijuana. "This provides a framework in which patients can receive medical cannabis legally in accordance with federal law," said OCBC attorney Robert Raich. The ruling applies to the entire Ninth Circuit, six out of nine states of which have passed medical marijuana voter initiatives. The defense of the medical cannabis clubs was in part suported by the NORML Foundation with the Medical Marijuana Patients' and Caregivers' Fund and Drug Policy Foundation. The appellate decision is posted at (under new opinions).

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Issue #108, 9/17/99 Court Reverses Self: No Warrant Needed for Thermal Imaging | US Appeals Court Rules for Cannabis Clubs, Clears Way for Distribution to Patients With Medical Necessity | Amnesty International Report Shows Collusion Between Colombian Army and Murderous Paramilitary Forces | Once Covert, Practice of US Coast Guard Firing on Suspected Drug Boats Revealed | House Committee: Feds Fabricated Drug Charge to Bring in Army at Waco | CONFERENCE: Preventing Heroin Overdose: Pragmatic Approaches, Seattle, Year 2000 | Editorial: Those Helicopters
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