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California and the West

U.S. High Court Tackles Thorny Topic of Medical Marijuana

Judiciary: California's Proposition 215, which has left a tangled legacy of confusion and uneven enforcement, spawned a test case that justices will hear.


SACRAMENTO — Even for the trend-setting California ballot, this was a bold proposition--to take marijuana, a long-demonized drug, and make it medicine. Supporters said Proposition 215 would ease the ills of thousands. Foes predicted chaos for cops, big problems for prosecutors.

Both sides, in the end, were right.

The landmark 1996 ballot measure, which spawned similar laws in eight states, has left a tangled legacy of uneven enforcement and continual tug-of-wars over who qualifies for medicinal weed and how it should be dispensed.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court wades into the thick of it, hearing oral arguments in a test case of the controversial law.

At issue is distribution of medical pot by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and other centers that sprouted in California after 56% of the voters passed Proposition 215. More broadly, the dispute pits a state's right to legalize marijuana as medicine against federal rules that strictly prohibit pot.

Medical marijuana boosters hope to convince the high court that patients facing dire illnesses such as AIDS and cancer might qualify to use pot out of "medical necessity," an exception, they argue, that trumps the federal government's zero-tolerance stance on illegal drugs.

Federal prosecutors counter that the nation's narcotics laws leave no such leeway. The proliferating medical marijuana statutes in states such as California, they argue, threaten to undermine Congress, unravel the nation's war on illegal narcotics trafficking and turn cannabis cooperatives into dangerously unregulated pharmacies for pot.

The high court could decide the case as early as summer, and its opinion might doom the so-called buyers clubs. Backers of medical pot say a decision favoring the federal government would severely undermine the law, closing down an important supply outlet for patients.

It could also chill the medical marijuana movement, both in California and nationwide. Nine other states are considering legislation embracing medical marijuana. Half a dozen others are poised to introduce bills advocating medical marijuana but aren't expected to progress until an outcome is reached in the Oakland case.

Though lawyers for the Oakland club insist that the essence of state marijuana laws is not at risk, advocates remain worried about a potentially sweeping ruling.

"The Supreme Court can say anything they want," said Scott Imler, founder of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, which serves nearly 900 patients in Southern California. "That would be my biggest fear--that in one big stroke they'd declare these initiatives unconstitutional."

Instead of pursuing individual patients with criminal charges, federal prosecutors sued the Oakland club and five other medical marijuana distribution centers in Northern California in January 1998. After a federal judge ordered the clubs closed, Oakland pushed the case up to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In September 1999, a three-judge appellate panel ruled that federal law was not an absolute barrier if the cannabis centers served a narrowly defined class of severely ill patients who had exhausted other medical remedies.

Prosecutors appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which signaled its willingness to overturn the appellate ruling by accepting the case late last year.

The clubs have support ranging from the California Medical Assn. to California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who argued in a high court brief that the justices should respect the traditional state interest in regulating most issues of health and safety.

Though research into the potential medical benefits of cannabis have been hindered by a balky and disbelieving federal government, a 1999 report commissioned by the U.S. drug czar concluded that marijuana eases pain and quells nausea in cancer patients and others.

But such findings haven't swayed the nation's drug warriors, who largely see little medical use for the weed.

"It's a smoke screen for the legalization movement, is what it is," said Bob Hussey, California Narcotics Officers Assn. executive director. "It's an excuse for a person who is addicted to chemicals to escape the long arm of the law."

Although the battle over the Oakland club is front and center now, backers of Proposition 215 insist that for thousands of patients in California the law is working as intended.

"It's protecting 99% of the medical marijuana users who otherwise would have to worry about being prosecuted and thrown in prison," said Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

If the movement has a success story, it's in West Hollywood.

The cooperative run by Imler has managed to skirt shutdowns and build bridges to local law enforcement. It recently closed a $1.2-million deal to purchase its 12,000-square-foot headquarters with the help of a loan from the city of West Hollywood.

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