Marijuana: Law and order

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 5:06 pm

On May 14, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 in United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative that the cooperatives permitted under California law to sell marijuana to medical patients who had a physician’s approval to use the drug were unconstitutional under federal law.
One of the justices, Stephen G. Breyer, declined to rule on the case because his brother, a U.S. district judge, had issued two of the original rulings that barred California cannabis buyers’ cooperatives from distributing marijuana. These rulings started the chain of events that brought the case to the Supreme Court.
The justices engaged in an often-spirited debate about whether or not marijuana was an effective treatment for certain diseases and conditions. They declined, however, to consider the validity of “medical marijuana” arguments, deciding instead to interpret the narrow question they had been given: Does the Controlled Substances Act, as written, allow a medical exception to its prohibition on growing, possessing, and/or selling marijuana?
The answer, according to the court, is no, since the Controlled Substance Act defines Schedule I drugs as those with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” The ruling allows state laws permitting the personal use and cultivation of medical marijuana to stand, but prohibits the kind of organized distribution that the cooperatives had engaged in, since, the court reasoned, these organizations cannot claim a medical necessity for marijuana use.
The court’s ruling passes the question of marijuana’s medical future to Congress, which would have to rewrite current laws to allow it to be used therapeutically. In response, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would permit physicians to prescribe it for their patients if state law permitted its use.

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