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Top U.s. Justices Says That Doctors Can Talk About Pot

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The U.S. Supreme Court handed a major victory Tuesday to the nine states
that allow the medical use of marijuana, refusing to let the federal
government punish doctors for recommending the drug to patients.

The justices without comment declined to review last year's ruling by the
9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that said doctors should
be able to speak frankly with their patients.

It means "that patients can truly get and physicians can truly give advice
about medical marijuana even if the president and the attorney general
disagree with that advice," said Daniel Abrahamson, the Oakland-based legal
director of the national Drug Policy Alliance, and co-counsel for the
doctors and patients who brought this case.

Plaintiff and patient Valerie Corral of Davenport -- who also co-founded
the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, raided last year by federal
drug agents -- noted that California's 1996 medical marijuana law allows
possession and use only with a physician's recommendation.

"Without a physician's recommendation, we have no medical marijuana -- we
have no access to it, Proposition 215 would be moot," she said, adding she
was "savoring this sweet victory" of the high court's decision Tuesday.

And plaintiff Dr. Stephen O'Brien, medical director of the East Bay AIDS
Center at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, said the court's
rejection of the case means "a load off my mind in terms of my ability to
discuss whatever I need to discuss with my patients.

"We're all very pleased about it. I think it's a good day for people with
HIV, people with chronic illness, and it's a good day for people who want
privacy of communication in their doctor's office."

The ruling was a setback for the Bush administration, which had threatened
to punish doctors who recommend marijuana -- or who simply discuss the
drug's benefits -- by revoking the all-important federal licenses they need
to write prescriptions, or even by criminal prosecution.

Besides California, the other states that have passed medical marijuana
laws are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and
Washington. All but Maine fall within the 9th Circuit, and are bound by its
now permanent ruling.

It's still illegal under federal law to grow, sell or possess marijuana,
and federal prosecutors can still go after cultivators, dealers and users,
just as they have done in raids on "cannabis clubs" and other locations in
California over the past few years.

Abrahamson said the ruling signals that "medical marijuana laws at the
state level are alive and well," while it also "gives a green light to
other states that are considering medical marijuana laws."

But he also said the high court's rejection of the case transcends medical
marijuana or any other specific drug, and addresses the broader issue of
how doctors and patients communicate. "Today's decision really strikes a
strong, principled stand for the integrity of the First Amendment even when
it comes to controversial issues."

It shores up another Constitutional freedom as well, he added: "It's also a
strong case for medical practice being determined by the states, not by
politicians in D.C."

Attorney General John Ashcroft had no comment on the decision, while White
House spokeswoman Claire Buchan restated the Bush administration's
position, saying: "As a matter of policy, we oppose any efforts to legalize
marijuana."

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control
Policy, noted that the high court's decision concerned the doctor-patient
relationship, not any medical benefits of marijuana.

Public officials and medical professionals must "continue to protect the
health of American citizens and reduce the harms caused by marijuana and
other dependency-producing drugs," Walters said in a statement, adding that
growing and selling marijuana remain federal offenses.

Staff writer Josh Richman contributed to this report.

administration said doctors recommending marijuana could lose their federal
licenses to prescribe medicine, could be excluded from Medicare and
Medicaid programs and could be prosecuted as criminals if they helped their
patients actually get the drug.

Seven California doctors and some of their patients sued during the Clinton
administration, and the Bush administration continued the fight. The
justices on Tuesday let stand the 9th Circuit's decision that doctors have
a constitutional right to speak candidly with their patients about marijuana.

"An integral component of the practice of medicine is the communication
between doctor and a patient. Physicians must be able to speak frankly and
openly to patients," the 9th Circuit said at the time.

In their appeal, federal prosecutors argued that doctors who recommend
marijuana are interfering with the drug war and circumventing the
government's judgment that the illegal drug has no medical benefit.

Staff writer Josh Richman contributed to this report.


Pubdate: Wed, 15 Oct 2003
Source: Oakland Tribune, The (CA)
Copyright: 2003 MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers
Contact: triblet@angnewspapers.com
Website: East Bay Times - Contra Costa and Alameda county news, sports, entertainment, lifestyle and commentary