The Court's 8-to-0 decision undercuts a 1996 California referendum that allowed cooperatives to distribute marijuana to patients with chronic illnesses like AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer. However, it does not explicitly address the issue of patients who use marijuana, which advocates claim controls nausea, improves appetite and eases pain.
The federal government challenged the California law in 1998 and sought to bar pot "clubs" from growing and providing marijuana. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative initially lost a lower court ruling, then won a federal appeals court ruling upholding the group's argument that medical necessity was a valid exception to the Controlled Substances Act.But the Supreme Court found that "marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" outside of government-approved research, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. The court rejected the cooperative's argument "that a drug may be found medically necessary for a particular patient or class even when it has not achieved general acceptance as a medical treatment."
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the overall ruling. But, in a concurring opinion, they distanced themselves from what they called an "unwarranted and unfortunate" excursion by the rest of the court, which suggested that even possession of marijuana for medical purposes violated the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the decision because his brother, a federal judge, was involved in the case in an earlier ruling.
Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland cooperative and a defendant in the lawsuit, called the decision "heavy-handed, ridiculous and wrong." He compares it to the landmark 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the court ruled that slaves weren't U.S. citizens and that the government could not ban slavery in the territories.
Jones admits the ruling puts advocates of medicinal marijuana "up against a hill." But he says his group will continue to litigate another lawsuit against the government over the ability of patients to possess pot for their own therapy.
The decision doesn't affect the cooperative's ability to operate as a political entity, Jones adds, and the group can continue to run its hemp products store and provide state-sanctioned photo identification for marijuana users.
"We're not closing down," Jones says.
A 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine found that while marijuana does contain valuable therapeutic compounds -- particularly for the relief of pain, nausea and low appetite -- smoking the drug can be harmful and may interfere with its healing properties. The report called for more research into the medicinal use of cannabis.
Since California and Arizona passed medical marijuana laws in 1996, voters in Oregon, Washington, Maine, Nevada, Alaska and Colorado have approved similar initiatives. The Hawaii legislature has also enacted a bill that allows patients to obtain the drug.
What To Do
To read the decision, visit the U.S. Supreme Court's Web site and click on "Opinions."
For a decidedly pro-pot view, try the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. And for more on the science of medical marijuana, visit the Institute of Medicine.