updated 12/16/2003 9:14:01 PM ET 2003-12-17T02:14:01

An appeals court ruled Tuesday that a federal law outlawing marijuana does not apply to sick people who are allowed to smoke pot with a doctor’s recommendation.

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The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a blow to the federal government in its fight against medical marijuana. The Justice Department has argued that state medical marijuana laws were trumped by federal drug laws.

The case also underscores the conflict between federal law and California’s 1996 medical marijuana law, which allows people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor’s recommendation. Eight other states have similar laws.

In its 2-1 decision, the court said prosecuting medical marijuana users under the federal law is unconstitutional if the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.

Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the majority that smoking pot on the advice of a doctor is “different in kind from drug trafficking.” The court added that “this limited use is clearly distinct from the broader illicit drug market.”

The case concerned two seriously ill California women who sued Attorney General John Ashcroft. They asked for a court order letting them smoke, grow or obtain marijuana without fear of federal prosecution.

A U.S. District judge tossed the case in March, saying the federal law barred him from blocking any potential enforcement action against medical marijuana patients Angel Raich and Diane Monson. Tuesday’s ruling sends the case back to the district judge.

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state have laws similar to California, which has been the focus of federal drug interdiction efforts. Agents have raided and shut down several medical marijuana growing clubs.

The appeals court, the nation’s largest, has jurisdiction over all of the states except Colorado and Maine.

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