Monday, November 29, 2004

Medical Marijuana or State's Rights?

From Jurist Paper Chase - Monday, November 29, 3:15:

The US Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in Ashcroft v. Raich (case summary from Duke Law School), a California case involving the use of marijuana as a legitimate medical treatment. The court is considering whether sick people in the eleven states which recognize medical marijuana can get around general federal laws which ban the drug. The Bush administration is arguing Congress has not found any acceptable medical use for marijuana and that by allowing such treatment, the government will be unable to eradicate drug trafficking and its related social harms. Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top court lawyer, argued before the court today that medical use of marijuana is potentially subjecting many people to health dangers. Raich's attorney countered by saying his clients are law-abiding citizens who need marijuana to survive. Justice Stephen Breyer said supporters of medical marijuana should take their fight to federal drug regulators before coming to the Supreme Court while other justices repeatedly referred to America's drug addiction problems. The case is an appeal from a decision [PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which ruled against the government and found federal prosecution of medical marijuana users to be unconstitutional if the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes. The Supreme Court ruled three years ago that the government could prosecute distributors of medical marijuana. The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, 03-1454. The Raich plaintiffs legal team has created an extensive website about the case and the isues it raises. AP has more.

This case is very interesting due to the federalism problem it presents the court. In a very broad overview - generally you would expect more liberal justices to sway in favor of medical marijuana and more conservative justices to sway against. This case, however, provides a twist: in general more conservative justices stand up for state's rights - which would allow the states to make the determination of medical marijuana use at a local level. More liberal justices would support the federal government's right under the Commerce clause to ban drugs as a national problem. So there is a real juxtaposition. Chief Justice Rehnquist is a federalism specialist - and his court has been specifically known for its willingness to address federalism issues. Rehnquist is still not present on the bench - but is still participating in decisions using transcripts, etc. This case is such an interesting question - even three very conservative states which do not allow legalized medical marijuana - Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana - filed friend of the court brief in support of the defendents in these cases saying that while they do not agree with legalized drug use - they feel it is a question to be decided on a state level - not at a federal level.

Based on the reports of the oral arguments, it sounds as if the court is going to be unwilling to let this loophole in the criminalization of drugs. But is should be a great opinion to read this summer.

More from CNN.com:
Supreme Court weighs Marijuana as Medicine

Medical marijuana case tests Congress' power

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