Ruling: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people who are arrested on federal marijuana distribution charges may not raise a "medical necessity" defense in federal court to avoid conviction.
Background: In California, dozens of medical marijuana distribution centers received considerable media attention following the passage of Proposition 215. Yet many of them had been quietly operating for years before the law was enacted. State and local responses ranged from prosecution to uneasy tolerance to hearty endorsement.
In January 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil suit to stop the operation of six distribution centers in northern California, including the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative (OCBC).
The U.S. District Court issued an injunction in May 1998 to stop the distributors' actions and rejected, in October 1998, OCBC's motion to modify the injunction to allow medically necessary distributions of marijuana. In September 1999, the Ninth Circuit ruled 3-0 that "medical necessity" is a valid defense against federal marijuana distribution charges, provided that a distributor can prove in a trial court that the patients it serves are seriously ill, face imminent harm without marijuana, and have no effective legal alternatives.
The case then went back to U.S. District Court, where the 1998 injunction was modified, allowing OCBC to distribute marijuana to seriously ill people who meet the Ninth Circuit's medical necessity criteria. The Justice Department then filed an appeal, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit's decision establishing a federal "medical necessity defense" for marijuana distribution.
Writing for a unanimous court (8-0), Justice Clarence Thomas affirmed what medical marijuana patients, providers, and advocates have long known: The U.S. Congress has not recognized marijuana's medical benefits, as evidenced by the drug's placement in the most restrictive schedule of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Specifically, Thomas wrote: "In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a Government-approved research project)."
"Unable ... to override a legislative determination manifest in statute" that there is no exception at all for any medical use of marijuana, the court held that the "medical necessity defense" is unavailable to medical marijuana distributors like OCBC.
The ruling does not affect the ability of states to remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana. It merely asserts that similar protections do not currently exist at the federal level. Of note, the case did not challenge the viability of Proposition 215, the California law that allows patients to legally use medical marijuana.
The ruling will likely prevent large-scale medical marijuana distribution in all 50 states because such operations are visible targets for federal authorities, as demonstrated in this case.
Unclear, however, is whether individual patients can assert a "medical necessity defense" to federal marijuana charges.
Footnote 7 of the opinion says nothing in the court's analysis "suggests that a distinction should be made between prohibitions on manufacturing and distributing and other prohibitions in the Controlled Substances Act."
In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens criticized Footnote 7, writing that "the Court reaches beyond its holding, and beyond the facts of the case, by suggesting that the defense of necessity is unavailable for anyone under the Controlled Substances Act."
Given the U.S. Supreme Court's narrow ruling, OCBC appealed the case again in U.S. District Court, raising constitutional and other issues.
OCBC argues that the federal injunction against it exceeds federal authority over interstate commerce. The organization also argued that barring marijuana distribution would violate its members' fundamental rights to relieve pain and the life-threatening side effects of some treatments for conditions like AIDS and cancer.
Ruling for the U.S. District Court on May 3, 2002, Judge Charles Breyer said OCBC has no constitutional right to distribute medical marijuana to sick patients. Breyer also said the federal government has the constitutional authority to regulate drug activity, even if it takes place entirely within a state's boundaries. OCBC appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.
On June 12, 2003, Judge Breyer issued a permanent injunction prohibiting OCBC and two other organizations from distributing medical marijuana. The order, requested by the U.S. Department of Justice, affects OCBC, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, and a dispensary in Ukiah.
On June 18, 2004, the Ninth Circuit sent the case back to U.S. District Court, arguing that "issues in Raich may control the outcome in this case. Accordingly, this case is remanded for the district court to reconsider after the Supreme Court has completed its action in Raich." As of March 2006, there had been no further action taken on this case.
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