As part of its intransigent opposition to California's 1996 Proposition 215, which allows the medicinal use of marijuana, the federal government in 1998 filed lawsuits against a handful of cannabis co-ops distributing marijuana to patients. Now, after many twists and turns, that case will be decided by the Supreme Court. (See http://www.drcnet.org/wol/151.html#forwardback for DRCNet's most recent coverage.)
But despite the Los Angeles Times' breathless announcement that the Supreme Court will "decide the fate of the medical marijuana laws in California and other states," the court is not judging California's medical marijuana law. Instead, it will review a 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals ruling allowing the clubs to stay open under the shield of a medical necessity defense that would protect them from federal prosecution.
In a possible hint at its forthcoming decision, the Supreme Court on August 29th issued an emergency stay barring the Oakland Cannabis Co-op from distributing marijuana to its 7,000 members. Such intervention from on high while a dispute is pending typically signals that the Supreme Court believes the lower court is wrong.
The 9th Circuit's ruling "threatens the government's ability to enforce the federal drug laws," government lawyers argued.
Upon winning the temporary order, US Solicitor General Seth Waxman petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case and reverse the 9th Circuit's ruling. Waxman told the justices that legally distributing marijuana, even for limited medical purposes, would "promote disrespect and disregard" for the drug laws. On Monday, the court agreed to hear the case. It will be argued early next year.
The Oakland Cannabis Co-op and its attorneys remain unperturbed, however.
Attorney Robert A. Raich told the Times no matter how the court rules, the ability of patients to grow and possess medical marijuana under California law would not be affected.
But, Raich continued, the co-op is ready to fight. "We would argue that medical necessity, an ancient defense that goes back centuries in Anglo jurisprudence, continues to exist," said Raich. "Patients have no other effective therapy... and they have a right to access to that medicine."
Raich added that the Oakland co-op will argue that the Supreme Court should respect the decision of California voters if it wishes to be consistent with recent rulings on states' rights.
In comments to DRCNet, the co-op's Jeff Jones echoed Raich's remarks. "We have faith that when the Supreme Court hears our case it will consider the needs of the patients who are suffering," he said. "We also hope the court will vindicate the citizens of California and many other states who enacted a compassionate medical marijuana law to allow patients to have access to their medicine."
Federal prosecutors insist that state laws cannot conflict with federal law and that marijuana has "no proven medical uses."
While a negative ruling from the Supreme Court would leave the Oakland Cannabis Co-op and other medical marijuana distributors open to federal prosecution, the federal government has so far declined to pursue criminal cases against medical marijuana providers. Instead, recognizing that medical marijuana has broad popular support in the California electorate, the feds have limited themselves to civil actions in the courts.
But the Oakland co-op's Jeff Jones isn't certain what a negative ruling would mean under a new administration. "I'm afraid a Bush administration would then use this to come in and systematically shut down the clubs," he told DRCNet.
"Bush talked about states' rights, but I think he doesn't really believe that," he added.
"With Gore," Jones speculated, "there would be more tolerance. He doesn't even want to hear the word marijuana; he wouldn't want to stir things up."
Even in the event of a negative ruling from the Supreme Court, Jones remains confident that medical marijuana cannot be stopped in California.
"If we lose this case, we will vigorously bring up a variety of other arguments to take to the appeals court," he said.
"They may be able to shut down one possible defense, but they'll never stop us cold."
Eight states in addition to California have recently enacted medical marijuana laws: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii (by action of the legislature), Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado. Washington, DC residents voted in 1998 to allow medical marijuana use, but Congress blocked the measure from becoming law.
The Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative is online at http://www.rxcbc.org.