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Supreme Court action upholds California's medical pot law

Justices reject appeals from San Diego and San Bernardino counties seeking to throw out the state marijuana law. Patients likely will be able to seek ID cards showing they're eligible to use the drug.

May 19, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals from two hold-out counties in Southern California that objected to the state's 13-year-old medical marijuana law and claimed it should be struck down as violating the federal drug control act.

Without comment, the court turned down the pair of appeals.

The action probably will clear the way for patients in San Diego and San Bernardino counties to seek county-issued identification cards that show they are eligible to possess and use marijuana.

The identification cards have been required under state law since 2004, but the two counties have refused to issue them. Their lawyers said the state's authorization for using medical marijuana conflicted with the zero-tolerance policy set by federal law.

"Our theory is that a state law which authorizes people to violate federal law is preempted" and, therefore, unconstitutional, Thomas Bunton, a deputy county counsel in San Diego, said last week.

Federal officials have maintained that all marijuana use is illegal, even in states such as California. But Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said recently that the federal government would not devote great effort to prosecuting low-level marijuana cases.

Lawyers for San Diego and San Bernardino counties had gone to court seeking a clear ruling on whether the state law violated the federal drug law. San Diego NORML, or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, had threatened to sue the county in 2005 for not complying with the state law by refusing to issue identification cards.

Last year, a state appeals court upheld the California medical marijuana law and said it was not rendered void by the federal drug law. The California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the two counties.

The counties then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Reform Law Project, said Monday's order "marks a significant victory for medical marijuana patients and their advocates nationwide." It dispels any remaining doubts that the state laws are valid, he said, and it "leaves ample room for states to move forward . . . with independent medical marijuana policies."

Since California's voters adopted the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, 12 other states have approved measures permitting medical use of marijuana: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. The New Hampshire Legislature passed a similar measure recently that awaits action by the governor.

The federal government, however, has maintained that the sale or use of marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. The 1970 law designates marijuana as a Schedule I drug that has "no currently accepted medical use" in the U.S.

Federal authorities say they can arrest and prosecute all who use or sell marijuana in states that have authorized medical use of the drug.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress and the federal government had the constitutional authority to regulate the sale and use of marijuana under its power over interstate commerce. The 6-3 decision, in the case of Gonzales vs. Raich, rejected the claim that personal use of homegrown marijuana was off-limits to federal authority. But the court did not rule on whether a state's law allowing medical use of marijuana was void because it conflicted with the federal law.

In their appeal, San Diego County's lawyers had questioned whether California's marijuana law was "preempted under the Supremacy Clause" of the Constitution by the federal drug control law.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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