Medical marijuana patients won a landmark legal victory December 16th
when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal
government has no constitutional authority to prosecute two California
women for possessing and growing marijuana for their personal medical use.

Federal prosecutors have long argued that California's 1996 medical
marijuana law, Prop. 215, was superseded by the federal Controlled
Substances Act which outlaws the use or cultivation of marijuana for any
purpose. Law enforcement agents have used this reasoning to raid and
arrest medical marijuana patients and their caregivers. But in a 2-1
decision, the court found that if the marijuana is not purchased,
transported across state lines or used non-medically, the federal
government has no jurisdiction. The ruling covers the seven states in
the Ninth Circuit that have passed medical marijuana laws including
Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
California just passed another medical marijuana law, SB420 which goes
into effect next year.

The appeals court ruling was prompted by a lawsuit filed in October
2002, by medical marijuana patients Angel McClary Raich and Diane Monson
plus Raich's two anonymous caregiver growers. It charged Attorney
General John Ashcroft and DEA Administrator Karen Tandy with exceeding
their authority by embarking on a campaign of seizing privately-grown
intrastate medical cannabis from California patients and caregivers. The
complaint charges that defendants harassed, arrested or prosecuted
patients, mounted paramilitary raids against them, and targeted patients
for other civil or administrative actions. In its ruling, the Ninth
Circuit remanded the case back to federal district court with
instructions to issue a preliminary injunction. The parties in the case
have several weeks to appeal the ruling.

If the case is not appealed, the district court will issue the
preliminary injunction which protects Raich and Monson from arrest by
federal agents. The two women argued that their use of marijuana
constituted a medical necessity. Raich says she has an array of serious
medical conditions including an inoperable brain tumor and a life
threatening wasting syndrome. Monson suffers from a degenerative disease
of the spine. Their situation is now similar to the six patients who
already receive medical marijuana from the U.S. Government under the
FDA's "Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program." Raich says she
hopes the ruling in Raich v. Ashcroft sends a message to Attorney
General John Ashcroft and DEA agents that their harassment of patients
is unconstitutional.

"I am totally ecstatic about what this decision will do not only for me,
but for hundreds of thousands of patients across the country," said
Raich who hopes it will help other patients with cases pending in
federal court. "Not too many people get to come up against someone who
is as evil as John Ashcroft and actually win and that feels very good. I
have the truth on my side, and it was nice to see the justices of the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals care about my life."

The ruling was also a sweet victory for Monson whose Oroville,
California home was raided in August 2002 by federal officials who
seized six of her medical marijuana plants. "Diane feels vindicated as a
person who suffered through a raid. This is a source of considerable joy
to her," said plaintiff's attorney Robert Raich who is also Angel
Raich's husband.

According to Robert Raich this is the first time the Controlled
Substances Act has been ruled unconstitutional. He says the court based
their decision on an interpretation of the Commerce Clause which governs
the federal government's ability to control interstate commerce. The
court found that the federal government lacked the power under this
clause to impose the federal law on plaintiffs.

Writing for the majority, Judge Harry Pregerson found that "The
intrastate, noncommercial cultivation, possession and use of marijuana
for personal medical purposes on the advice of a physician is, in fact,
different in kind from drug trafficking." The court further noted that
"this limited use is clearly distinct from the broader illicit drug
market, as well as any broader commercial market for medical marijuana,
insofar as the medical marijuana at issue in this case is not intended
for, nor does it enter, the stream of commerce."

But the dissenting opinion, written by Justice C. Arlen Beam, who was
visiting from the 8th Circuit, equated the actions of the plaintiffs
with those of a wheat farmer named Filburn. Beam felt constrained by the
1942 war-rationing decision in Wickard v. Filburn, which said that any
wheat grown anywhere, even for home use by the farmer who grew it, can
be regulated by Congress under the Commerce Clause. This dissent means
that the Supreme Court may have to revisit Wickard, which could
significantly reduce federal power to regulate local activities.

The plaintiffs had also argued that the federal Controlled Substances
Act violated state's rights and their right to be free from pain and
suffering under the 5th and 9th Amendments. But the court did not
address those arguments, nor did it consider the distribution and sale
of marijuana. The court is still considering these questions in another
appeal brought by the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana and the
Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative.

Robert Raich says it remains to be seen how the Ninth Circuit will use
this ruling as it fashions future decisions. "I would hope that the
court would use it as a springboard to provide additional ways for
patients to legally, under federal law, have access to their medicine,"
said Raich. "Now that we have secured the right of patients to possess
and use their medication, it is just another step to recognize that
patients have to be able to obtain it from somewhere."

Dale Gieringer, coordinator for the California branch of the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, believes that an appeal
by the U.S. Justice Department to the Supreme Court appears certain.
"Nonetheless," said Gieringer in a statement, "Medical marijuana
supporters are optimistic of victory, due to the fact that the Ninth
Circuit's reasoning was based on recent Supreme Court precedents by the
court's' conservative majority restricting federal powers under
interstate commerce."

Angel Raich, who credits cannabis with getting her out of her
wheelchair, said she wants the Supreme Court justices to understand that
she doesn't have any other method or legal alternatives with which to
fight her illnesses. She says she is enormously grateful to her
physician, Dr. Frank Lucido, for having the courage to stand with her
and give a declaration under oath that states her medical conditions.
"If the cannabis were taken from me, not only would I die of starvation,
I would become crippled and die a torturous death and that is something
that really scares me." said Raich. "If they appeal the decision, I will
continue to fight this battle with every ounce of breath in my body."

*Ann Harrison* is a freelance reporter working in the Bay Area. She can
be reached at * <>*