Medical Pot Pits States Against Federal Government
By Ryan Justin Fox, Special to Stateline
The movement to legalize medical marijuana chalked up a victory in a tenth state last week, while legislative efforts to let chronically ill patients smoke away their pain smolder in several other capitals.
Vermont became the latest state to buck federal law outlawing marijuana. Proponents hope a growing acceptance by states of marijuana use by patients will help snuff out federal drug enforcers' efforts to crack down on the practice, which continues to face challenges in the country's highest courts.
Lawmakers in Vermont gave final approval May 19 to a bill legalizing the use and possession of marijuana by people who suffer from diseases such as AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas does not support the measure, but has pledged to let it become law without his signature.
Vermont and Hawaii are the only two states where legislators have passed measures to legalize medical marijuana. In eight other states Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington voters passed laws by ballot initiative. Maryland does not condone medical "pot," but Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) in 2003 signed a bill allowing patients who use marijuana to cite health reasons as a defense in court, resulting in a lesser penalty for possession.
Medical marijuana advocates praised the Vermont measure, which culminates a three-year effort in the state to legalize therapeutic use of the drug. "This is a humane, compassionate measure that offers hope and protection to some of Vermont's most vulnerable citizens. ... The sick should not be casualties in the war on drugs," Neal Levine, director of state policy for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release.
Vermont's governor, although under pressure from Bush administration officials to veto the bill, said in a statement: "I believe that we owe Vermonters with debilitating medical conditions the very best that medical science has to offer. Proven science has not demonstrated that marijuana is a part of that. Despite that fact, marijuana offers those with the most painful chronic diseases a measure of hope in a time of suffering."
In addition to Vermont, lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin also proposed bills in 2004 to permit medical marijuana use, but so far efforts there have stalled or been defeated. Voters in Alaska, Arkansas and Montana may determine their marijuana policies through ballot initiatives during their general elections in November.
Under federal law, which was upheld by a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it is illegal for anybody to possess or use marijuana even if someone claims "medical necessity." Therefore, state laws permitting medical use have come under fire by federal officials. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, has cracked down on a number of facilities in California that distribute marijuana for medical reasons.
"This is a states' rights issue. The foundation of this country is based off of 50 laboratories of democracy," said former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R). Johnson, who has admitted to being a rehabilitated drug user, has been lobbying Congress on behalf of several interest groups to preach the benefits of medicinal marijuana. Another advocate, celebrity talk show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, recently held a press conference to lobby for the cause in Albany, N.Y., where a bill is still pending.
Under California's 1996 "Compassionate Use Act," privately owned cooperatives and distribution centers are allowed to dole out a limited amount of cannabis to terminally sick patients with a doctor's prescription.
The Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, Calif., was one such distribution organization raided by DEA agents in 2002. As a result, the group sued the federal government. In April 2004, a federal judge in San Jose, Calif., ruled that the federal government did not have grounds to take punitive action against the group.
The judge's decision was based on a December 2003 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the federal government's 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits marijuana use, doesn't apply to sick patients with doctor's approval to use the drug in states with medical marijuana laws. The San Francisco-based court, ruling 2-1, said that federal law enforcement officials don't have authority to prosecute medical marijuana users if the substance is used for medical consumption under state law and is grown locally, dispensed non-commercially and does not cross state lines.
The federal appeals court ruling was a strike at the U.S. Justice Department, which argued that federal law trumped any state laws legalizing medical marijuana. The federal government is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a legal expert at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Although the 9th circuit is reversed on appeal more than any other federal appeals court, legalization advocates said the ruling for now empowers states in that court's jurisdiction to condone medical marijuana programs with little fear of federal intervention. They hope that state acceptance of medicinal uses will result in more lenient marijuana policies nationwide.
"I think at a certain point, it will reach a critical mass where state and public opinion will force a change in federal policy," Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Bruce Mirken said.
Stateline.org Staff Writer Erin Madigan contributed to this report.