High Court Hears Medicinal Marijuana Case

ByGeraldine Sealey

March 28, 2001 -- Jeff Jones has witnessed firsthand the ravaging effects of cancer. He watched his father, Wayne Jones, battle his illness as well as the toxic treatments that left him nauseous, vomiting and weak.

A few years after his father died in 1988, Jones learned about the benefits marijuana could have provided his father. Using the drug can alleviate pain and nausea, and help patients hold down food, allowing them to stay stronger.

Determined to put this knowledge to work for others, Jones opened the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative in California to help seriously ill people obtain marijuana as well as information and support about the drug's medicinal use.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the Cooperative and other "pot clubs" can use "medical necessity" as a defense for using and distributing marijuana despite federal drug bans.

'Pot Club' Crackdown

Although marijuana is a Schedule I drug under federal law, California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act legalized the drug's use and cultivation for medicinal purposes in the state.

Eight other states, plus Washington, D.C., have passed similar laws: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. At least 30 states have passed some form of legislation sympathetic to seriously ill patients seeking access to marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Today's case goes back to January 1998, when the federal government filed suit against Jones' Cooperative and five other "pot clubs" to prevent them from distributing marijuana. The club's practices violated the Controlled Substances Act, the government said. Further, the FDA had not declared marijuana safe for medicinal use.

California officials argue the state has a right to enforce its own laws. Lawyers for the Justice Department have argued that distributing marijuana, even for the goal of helping ill patients, makes it difficult to enforce federal drug laws.

Justices Seem Skeptical of Clubs

Several justices seemed skeptical of the arguments for distributing medicinal marijuana. Defending so-called pot clubs, businesses organized to sell drugs, is different from arguing that a patient's need for the drug should override the law, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested.

"That's a vast expansion beyond any necessity defense I've everheard of," he said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy seemed to agree. "You're asking us to hold that this defense exists ... with nospecific plaintiff before us, no specific case," he told theCooperative's lawyer, Gerald Uelman.

In lower courts, a federal judge ruled in favor of the federal government. But last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "medical necessity" can be used as a legal defense.

The government "has offered no evidence to rebut [a marijuana club's] evidence that cannabis is the only effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill individuals," the three-judge appellate panel said.

States' Rights vs. War on Drugs

The case puts the rights of states to enforce their own laws at odds with a hard-line federal stance on illegal drugs. Those elements create an interesting dilemma for the court since the justices often defend states' rights and come down in support of federal drug law enforcement.

In a legal brief, the Cooperative's lawyers appealed to the justices' commitment to preserving state's authority.

"The court in this case can affirm and deepen its commitment to federalism, fundamental liberties, and the powers reserved to the States and the people," they wrote, "and by doing so enable seriously ill patients to alleviate their suffering."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer has recused himself from the case because his brother, Charles Breyer, is the federal district judge who ordered the club to stop distributing marijuana.

A ruling in United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative is expected by June.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events