WASHINGTON — Anyone who lights up a joint for medicinal purposes isn’t likely to be pursued by federal authorities, despite a Supreme Court ruling that these marijuana users could face federal charges, people on both sides of the issue say.
In a 6-3 decision, the court on Monday said those who smoke marijuana because their doctors recommend it to ease pain can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws, overriding medical marijuana statutes in 10 states.
While the justices expressed sympathy for two seriously ill California women who brought the case, the majority agreed that federal agents may arrest even sick people who use the drug as well as the people who grow pot for them.Medical marijuana
The ruling could be an early test of the compassion Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised to bring to the Justice Department following the tenure of John Ashcroft.
Gonzales and his aides were silent on the ruling Monday, but several Bush administration officials said individual users have little reason to worry. “We have never targeted the sick and dying, but rather criminals engaged in drug trafficking,” Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Bill Grant said.
Yet Ashcroft’s Justice Department moved aggressively following the Supreme Court’s first decision against medical marijuana in 2001, seizing individuals’ marijuana and raiding their suppliers.
Raid prompted lawsuit
The lawsuit that led to Monday’s ruling, in fact, resulted from a raid by DEA agents and local sheriff’s deputies on a garden near Oroville, Calif., where Diane Monson was cultivating six pot plants.
“I’m going to have to be prepared to be arrested,” said Monson, an accountant who has degenerative spine disease and grows her own marijuana plants.
Javier Pena, the DEA agent in charge of the San Francisco field division, said Monday his agency took part in the raid only at the request of local authorities.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said Monday that “people shouldn’t panic ... there aren’t going to be many changes.”
Local and state officers handle nearly all marijuana prosecutions and must still follow any state laws that protect patients.
Current state laws not affected
Ruling The ruling does not strike down California’s law, or similar ones in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state. However, it may hurt efforts to pass laws in other states because the federal government’s prosecution authority trumps states’ wishes.
It was unclear whether any medical marijuana users ever have been arrested by federal agents. They typically are involved only when the quantities are substantial.
Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House drug policy office, said federal prisoners convicted of marijuana possession had on average more than 100 pounds.
Growers of large amounts of medical marijuana and people who are outspoken in their use of it could face heightened scrutiny.
“From an enforcement standpoint, the federal government is not going to be crashing into people’s homes trying to determine what type of medicine they’re taking,” said Asa Hutchinson, a former DEA administrator. “They have historically concentrated on suppliers and people who flaunt the law. There should not be any change from that circumstance.”
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, which favors legalization of marijuana, said the benchmark for federal intervention has been 50 plants.
But he said the larger point is that the ruling could stymie efforts in other states to pass laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana.
Government takes hard stand
The Bush administration, like the Clinton White House before it, has taken a hard stand against state medical marijuana laws, arguing that such statutes could undermine the fight against illegal drugs. John Walters, director of national drug control policy, defended the government’s ban. “Science and research have not determined that smoking marijuana is safe or effective,” he said.
St. Pierre said the decision points up a large difference between the administration and the public.
“The disconnect is so wide here,” St. Pierre said. “In no circumstance where voters have the opportunity to weigh in have they said no to medical marijuana.”
Justice John Paul Stevens, an 85-year-old cancer survivor, said the Constitution allows federal regulation of homegrown marijuana as interstate commerce. But he noted the court was not passing judgment on the potential medical benefits of marijuana.
And Congress could change federal law if it desires, Stevens said, although that is not considered likely.
The case is Gonzales v. Raich, 03-1454.
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