The state and a host of civil liberties and medical rights groups are
siding with an Oakland pot distribution club in a standoff with the federal
government over the future of medical marijuana laws to be considered next
month by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a brief filed Tuesday in the Supreme Court, Attorney General Bill
Lockyer argued that California has the authority to enforce its
voter-approved medical marijuana law without interference from the federal
government. Proposition 215, overwhelmingly passed in 1996, permitted
seriously ill patients to use marijuana, but backers of the law have been
entangled in legal battles with the U.S. Justice Department for more than
three years.

"The electorate in California have declared their view on this question,
and it should be respected by this court as a democratic exercise properly
reserved to the states," California's brief to the justices declared. "The
Constitution does not prevent the states from expressing their preference
for allowing citizens to use cannabis to treat serious illness."

Oral arguments are scheduled before the Supreme Court justices March 28.
The court is considering the medical marijuana issue for the first time in
a case that could have sweeping implications for Prop. 215 and for the
increasing number of states with laws permitting the distribution and use
of marijuana for medical purposes.

Justice Department officials maintain that laws such as Prop. 215 conflict
with federal drug laws, warning the Supreme Court that allowing states such
as California to dispense medical marijuana would "promote disrespect and
disregard for an act of Congress that is central to combating illicit drug

The Clinton administration sued the Oakland Cannabis Buyer's Club and five
other Northern California pot clubs in 1998. Since then, only the Oakland
club has survived to keep the legal fight going, setting up mechanisms for
identifying patients who would be eligible to receive medical marijuana,
such as those with AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The
city of Oakland has supported the cannabis club.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last year set the stage for the
Supreme Court case when it carved out an unprecedented exception to federal
drug laws. In that ruling, the appeals court found that "medical necessity"
could trump the drug laws and allow distribution of pot to patients facing
"imminent harm."

Legal experts differ on whether the Supreme Court will take a narrow
approach to the case, or use it to define how far medical marijuana laws
can go generally.

Despite the potential stakes in the case, no other state chose to join
California's legal position. Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada,
Colorado, Maine and Alaska have enacted medical marijuana laws similar to
California's, and advocates are pushing for legislation in other states.

"We were hoping other states that have initiatives would join on board,"
said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, who will argue
before the justices on behalf of the Oakland club.

The Oakland club did gather support from other officials and organizations.
In one brief, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, an advocate of legalization,
and state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, were among a number of
individual public officials to support the club's position. The American
Civil Liberties Union and a number of medical and public health groups also
signed on to friend-of-the-court briefs filed Tuesday opposing the federal
government's position.

Two anti-drug organizations, the Family Research Council and the Global
Drug Policy of Drug Free America, filed briefs last month supporting the
Bush administration, which has inherited the case from the Clinton

Note: The nation's highest court will get the case next month in a battle
over state Prop. 215's legalization of medical use of the drug.

Pubdate: Wed, 21 Feb 2001
Source: Contra Costa Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc.
Address: 2640 Shadelands Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598