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U.S. asked to stop 'false information' on medical pot

Advocacy group tells the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the government needs to update the official view of marijuana to reflect its use as a pain reliever.

April 15, 2009|Carol J. Williams and Maura Dolan

LOS ANGELES AND SAN FRANCISCO — Citing "overwhelming" evidence that marijuana eases pain and anxiety for the chronically ill, medicinal pot advocates told a federal appeals panel Tuesday that the federal government should be stopped from spreading "false information" about marijuana.

As was argued in the debate over whether stem cell research should be resumed, Americans for Safe Access cast the Bush administration's opposition to any legalized use of marijuana as being shaped by conservative sentiments instead of hard facts.

President Obama has signaled to Cabinet members that science should be guiding government judgments in controversial matters of medicine and technology, not the prevailing political mood. On Tuesday, however, a government lawyer told three judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the administration wasn't required to explain or retract its statements that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use."

Marijuana is banned under federal law but is legal for cancer patients and others suffering chronic illnesses in California and a dozen other states. Safe Access sued the federal government under a law that prohibits it from disseminating inaccurate information.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder signaled last month that the administration wouldn't interfere with medical pot dispensing in states where it is legal as long as users abide by state law.

Since California became the first state to partially legalize medical marijuana 13 years ago, the federal government has prevailed in all challenges to the state's practice, including a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the federal government's right to prosecute offenders.

Safe Access argues that the federal government needs to update its assessment to conform with the reality of marijuana's broadening legal use as a pain reliever.

"The science to support medical marijuana is overwhelming. It's time for the federal government to acknowledge the efficacy of medical marijuana and stop holding science hostage to politics," said Steph Sherer, director of Americans for Safe Access.

The group petitioned for revision of the federal judgment in 2004 but was ignored by Bush officials, who also sought and won federal district court dismissal of a 2007 lawsuit filed by Safe Access.

Justice Department lawyer Alisa Klein told the appeals court panel that the government shouldn't be forced to defend the accuracy of "countless pieces of information" in its massive archives. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Marsha S. Berzon, an appointee of President Clinton, said the law at issue in the case was "amazing" because it did appear to require the government to correct all inaccurate statements, a result she called "troubling."

Despite the positive signals emanating from Washington lately, Alan Morrison, founder of Public Citizen's Litigation Group who argued on behalf of Safe Access, said the plaintiffs hadn't expected a government turnaround just yet.

Amid economic turmoil and global crises, he said, medical marijuana "is well below the radar scope of the Obama administration."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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