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Clinton Asks Supreme Court To Overturn Marijuana Ruling

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Pubdate: Sat, 29 Jul 2000
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Examiner
Contact: letters@examiner.com

Author: Bob Egelko, Of The Examiner Staff

CLINTON ASKS SUPREME COURT TO OVERTURN MARIJUANA RULING

Appellate Decision For Oakland Cannabis Club "Flouts' Congress

The Clinton administration wants the Supreme Court to overturn an appellate ruling that
would make medical marijuana available to seriously ill patients in Oakland, saying the ruling
would flout the will of Congress and undermine federal drug laws.

The ruling last September by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which opened the door
for distribution of marijuana in cases of "medical necessity," was "directly at odds with
Congress' express finding that marijuana has no currently accepted medical use," the Justice
Department said in papers filed with the high court.

Noting that no other federal court had allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes
apart from government-approved experiments, the department said the ruling "threatens the
government's ability to enforce the federal drug laws in the nine states within the 9th Circuit,"
with a total population of nearly 50 million.

The court is likely to decide this fall whether it will review the case or leave the appellate
decision intact.

The appeal was not surprising in light of the intense legal battle waged by the Clinton
administration against Proposition 215 since California voters approved it in November 1996.
The initiative allowed patients to use marijuana with their doctor's recommendation without
risking prosecution under state drug laws.

But the decision to appeal disappointed state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who had written
to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno asking her to leave the appellate ruling intact.

Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin said Friday the appellate decision established "a
thoughtful policy in this state that was not clearly articulated in Proposition 215, and that is
respectful of the needs of sick people and also of legitimate public safety concerns."

Robert Raich, lawyer for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, had a more scornful
reaction. With Texas Gov. George W. Bush accusing Vice President Al Gore of being soft
on drugs, Raich said, "in response, the Clinton-Gore administration now feels it must deny
medical cannabis patients access to the marijuana they require."

The Oakland cooperative was among several Northern California marijuana dispensaries shut
down in 1998 by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in response to a Justice Department
lawsuit. Breyer agreed with the department that federal drug laws overrode Proposition 215
and ruled out a defense of necessity, the doctrine that a law can be broken when it is the only
way to prevent a more serious harm.

But the appeals court ruled last September that federal law did not preclude a claim of
necessity for patients who needed marijuana to prevent imminent serious harm and could
show that legal alternatives were ineffective.

The court also said the Justice Department had failed to rebut evidence offered by the
cooperative and its members that marijuana was the only effective medication for many
seriously ill patients. Uses of the drug include countering pain and nausea caused by therapies
for AIDS and cancer and preventing serious weight loss in AIDS patients.

Ordered by the court to reconsider the case, Breyer invited a Justice Department lawyer to
offer new evidence, got no response, and then ruled July 17 that the Oakland cooperative
could provide marijuana to any of its more than 2,000 patients who could show medical
necessity. The Justice Department is also appealing that ruling.

In Friday's Supreme Court appeal, the department said Congress, in passing laws against
marijuana, had given federal law enforcement and health officials the responsibility to decide
when such drugs could be distributed and used for medical purposes, under
government-approved experiments.

"It has not left that determination to individual courts or juries -- much less to private
organizations like the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative," department lawyers wrote.
They also said the appellate ruling would encourage distributors of other banned drugs, such
as heroin and LSD, to assert a medical necessity defense.


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