Federal Appeals Court Rejects Medical Marijuana

Supporters of medical marijuana suffered another major setback today when an appeals court ruled that the federal government can still arrest and prosecute medical-marijuana patients even if they are protected by state law and even if their usage is deemed a “medical necessity.”

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided unanimously against Oakland resident Angel Raich, who suffers from a variety of ailments including scoliosis, a brain tumor, and chronic nausea, even though her doctor testified that it was the only effective treatment to ease her pain and help her appetite. The judges indicated that Raich would possibly be able to avoid conviction under the medical necessity argument, but that she was not immune to arrest and prosecution nor was any other medical-marijuana patient who claimed medical necessity.

Raich’s case reached the Supreme Court in 2005, but the high court ruled that state laws providing for medical marijuana did not protect their citizens from federal prosecution. Currently, there are 11 states (including California) that have legalized medical marijuana. The Supreme Court then bumped the case back down to the appeals court, who ruled on a much narrower aspect of the case namely, whether or not absolute medical necessity precluded the government’s ability to prosecute these cases. According to the three-judge panel, it does not.

In a related story out of Oregon today, where medical pot has been legal since 1998, the state Senate passed a measure allowing employers to fire medical-marijuana patients who fail drug tests. The measure still has to be approved in the House and be signed by the governor. Oregon has 13,000 registered medical-marijuana users, and their supporters had been pushing for a bill that protected them from being fired. Instead, the opposite measure was passed. Supporters contend that a simple urine test, which would yield a positive result for as long as 30 days after ingestion of pot, does not accurately reflect whether or not an employee was impaired or intoxicated during work hours.

Despite the controversial nature of the medical-marijuana issue and the fact that voters in several states have overwhelmingly shown support for the measure the U.S. Justice Department has only intensified its prosecution of medical pot. An Associated Press report this past weekend noted that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was “embarking on a stepped-up effort targeting [medical-marijuana] clinics” they suspected of generating an inordinate amount of profit. On one day in January, the DEA raided 11 clinics in the Los Angeles area.

Since state laws are being ruled virtually meaningless by the court system and since the federal government seems intent on prosecuting these cases, it appears that amending the federal Controlled Substances Act may be the only true recourse for medical-marijuana supporters. However, the influence of the pharmaceutical and tobacco lobbies alone make this approach rather unlikely to succeed.

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