Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana

Revolutionary Worker #1104, May 27, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

On May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to forbid any distribution of marijuana for medical purposes--and criminalized dozens of cannabis-buying clubs established to provide the herb to patients in California. With this cruel and unjust decision, the Court made it impossible for thousands of seriously ill people in California to obtain marijuana legally.


In 1998 the Clinton administration obtained a federal injunction to shut down marijuana buying clubs that had become legal in California. That injunction was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the administration's appeal to the Supreme Court. The Bush administration continued this push for a federal shutdown of medical marijuana--and now the Supreme Court has ruled in their favor. It has not struck down the laws of California (that now have decriminalized the distribution of medical marijuana)--but has ruled that the federal law does not allow an exception for medical marijuana, and the marijuana-buying clubs are therefore illegal.

This was a grim, but not surprising, act of shameless double-think from this highly reactionary court. Writing for the larger court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that because the 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act banned marijuana this ``reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception.''

The court's circular argument: Marijuana is illegal, so it can't be any good, so don't give us any arguments for medical decriminalization. In essence, the decision insists that marijuana remains a demon weed "cuz we said so," even if thousands of people use it to relieve their pain and suffering. One commentary called it "Let them eat chemo" arrogance. (The complete irrationality of the court's argument stands out especially in the case of AIDS patients: since AIDS was not even recognized as a disease in 1970, the law then could not possibly be a considered conclusion of the drug's effectiveness!)

To make this ruling, the notoriously rightwing Clarence Thomas and the rest of this vicious Court had to throw out a lower federal court decision. They had to completely disregard the popular vote in California (which legalized the use of medical marijuana in that state by a vote of 56 percent in the 1996 Proposition 215). The court had to simply ignore the views and research of medical doctors and investigators who have been successfully using marijuana for years. And above all, they had to coldly brush aside the experience and the intense needs of thousands of seriously ill people who find relief from this drug. Marijuana has been proven widely effective at calming the wrenching nausea of chemotherapy, reversing the starvation of AIDS-related wasting, and easing painful muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis. People also successfully use it to ease symptoms of glaucoma, sickle-cell anemia, asthma, epilepsy and other diseases.

In another sick twist: the court said that the only exception allowable was the congressional approval of legal marijuana for medical research. Meanwhile medical researchers have pointed out that the federal government withholds legal marijuana from their research, because it does not want them to be able to expose federal policy banning medical marijuana.

The decision was by a unanimous 8-0 vote--with Justice Breyer withholding his vote because his brother is a lower court judge involved in the case.

Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the ruling as a victory for U.S. drug enforcement laws and said it clearly "reaffirms the federal government's preeminent role in regulating controlled substances."

The Supreme Court's cold endorsement of the federal "war on drugs" is a barely disguised act of "war on the people." And it will immediately have an impact on the estimated 100,000 sick people who use marijuana for relief. The lawyer for the Oakland Cannabis-buyers cooperative said he expects federal authorities to quickly seek injunctions shutting down such buyers clubs. Many patients will be forced to obtain marijuana illegally (from the black market that serves the millions of recreational users). Those unable or unwilling to get it illegally will be forced to suffer unnecessarily from their illnesses.

The Threat of Jail

"Drug dogs, helicopter surveillance, urine tests, phone taps, roadside garbage searches, use of the military, and the use of informants are a few examples of the intrusive methods commonly used in the War Against Marijuana Consumers. Federal, state and local governments spend an estimated total of $7 billion each year to hunt down, arrest and lock up marijuana consumers."

National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)

There should be no doubt that this decision is backed by serious police threats and endorses an ongoing campaign of arrests.

Colorado was about to institute a program on June 1 which allowed registered patients to buy, possess and grow marijuana. But the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Colorado's Attorney General Ken Salazar said that anyone possessing marijuana remained "in real peril of federal drug enforcement."

The federal government spends $16 billion annually on its "war on drugs"--and as part of that, there has been a relentless and growing persecution of marijuana users and distributors in the U.S. The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the group that has done the most research into marijuana sentencing, estimates that over nine million people have been busted for marijuana laws in the U.S. since 1965, and that someone is arrested every two minutes.

In 1997, there were more than 700,000 marijuana arrests in the United States--the largest number in U.S. history, and 87% were for possession, not trafficking. That same year, 30 people were doing life terms for marijuana. It is estimated that there are now about 60,000 people in prison or jail for various levels of marijuana offenses. Over 37,000 were cases where marijuana was the only drug involved, and over 15,000 people are believed to be behind bars for possession alone (not sale) of marijuana. These figures all grew while the president was Bill Clinton (the man who toked but didn't inhale). And all signs are that the current government of George Bush (the man who says he drank but didn't snort) is committed to intensifying such attacks even further.

In some states, getting caught with a small amount of marijuana is punishable by a fine. But in many states penalties are truly draconian. In Alabama, cultivating marijuana can carry a sentence of life in prison, and a second conviction for selling marijuana carries a fixed sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. In Indiana, "knowingly visiting a place where drugs are used" carries a sentence of up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine--effectively criminalizing all kinds of public and social gatherings.

A possession conviction can carry a sentence of 20 years hard labor in a Louisiana prison. Cultivating a single plant in your home can carry a prison sentence of 15 years in Missouri. You can get life in prison in Montana if you share marijuana from your plant with someone else. Other states where simply growing your own marijuana plants can get you life in prison include Oklahoma and Rhode Island. Federal penalties as well can get you life in prison for cultivating over 100 plants. In some states, the police can take your car if you are found with any marijuana in it. Countrywide, the "one strike you're out" rule means that a family can be evicted from federal housing projects if even one member is found with a joint of pot.

People using or growing or buying marijuana for their medical needs are faced with all this.

Meanwhile, there is an intense countercurrent to this police-state approach. There is a widespread awareness that the "war on drugs" has failed to stop drug use. And many people have a sense that it has mainly served to strengthen police, intensify their occupation of whole communities, conduct blanket policies of racial profiling and harassment, militarize U.S. borders, and intervene in countries like Colombia, Peru and Mexico.

The anti-marijuana crusade is so unpopular that the Justice Department case against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative was structured to deliberately avoid any jury trial. Federal prosecutors suspected that they would have a hard time getting any jury in California to uphold their case, and their federal law.

Even sections of the ruling class have--for their own reasons, and reflecting their own class interests--come out for changes in drug policy. Nine states have now legalized the distribution of medical marijuana--Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State and, of course California. (Connecticut's more limited law allows cancer and glaucoma patients to possess marijuana obtained from a doctor's prescription.)

One of every five people in the U.S. is in a state that has decriminalized medical marijuana. So it was inevitable that the legal question would emerge--whether individual states have the legal right to partially decriminalize the distribution of a drug banned by federal law. A key function of the U.S. Supreme Court is precisely to rule on differences between state laws and federal policy--to resolve disputes within the U.S. ruling class--and that is part of what this recent decision in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative was about.

By rejecting any state decriminalization of medical marijuana distribution, the Supreme Court has taken an extreme stand in support of the relentless "war on drugs." Historically it is the state governments (not the federal authorities) who enforce laws against local drug distribution. If state governments consider medical marijuana legal--who will enforce the Supreme Court's decision? Several members of the Supreme Court argued that they thought distribution must remain illegal--but that there may be medical reasons to consider allowing use to be legal (and how logical is that?).

The Supreme Court has stuck its legal finger in a weakening dike of marijuana prohibition--making criminals out of more than 100,000 people with the stroke of a pen. The ruling has not ended the inner-ruling class conflict over marijuana law; it coldly puts the Supreme Court on the side of a profound injustice--participating in a federal crusade against marijuana.

This Supreme Court decision has thrown tens of thousands of people back into illegality, threatens them if they dare go "one toke over the line" and deepens the air of cruelty and unreality that surrounds the enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

Resistance to a Nauseating Ruling

``Whereas some other drugs can be dispensed and prescribed for medical use ... the same is not true for marijuana. Indeed, for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has no currently accepted medical use at all....

Justice Clarence Thomas

"Clarence Thomas says marijuana has no medical use. Maybe he'd like to try my cancer... Chemo nausea isn't like any other kind. It's relentless. It's driving. Every flu is packed together into a hurricane. A body that knows it's been poisoned fights back. It's willing to expunge--by all means necessary--every ounce of toxin to survive. I learned this the hard way... I tried my chemo regimen without weed. Once. From then on I didn't captain a chemo boat without smoking a pinch of the magic herb immediately after. And it was magic. It steadied the seas on contact. Cleared the sky. From that first pull of smoke through my lungs I was back to a glassy sea, the same glassy sea most people take for granted. Weed was one of the few drugs that offered relief. It didn't knock me out or speed me up, it didn't destroy my heart muscle or take out my hair, it didn't slow my thinking or slur my speech. It didn't attack my bowels or make my fingers numb. It did give me some peace. It did settle my stomach. It did revive my appetite. It did not lead to an addiction. It did not cost a lot of money. (Partly because my mom grew it for me in her backyard.) It worked."

Dr. Dan Shapiro, faculty member at University of Arizona medical school

"As far as I'm concerned, the Supreme Court has blood on its hands and no amount of soap can wipe it off. I'm not going to stop anything I'm doing."

35-year-old paralegal with a brain tumor in Oakland

In California, many buyers clubs were set up with the approval of government officials. And there is a profound disappointment at the legal reversal of legality. "We set up these clubs as a stop-gap measure, believing, naively, that our democratic institutions would take care of us," an activist in one California buyers cooperative said.

There has been a powerful outcry against this unjust court decision--and signs that significant forces intend to resist and defy it. Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland Cannabis-buyers cooperative and a defendant in the lawsuit, said the cooperative, which has over 6,000 members, will find ways to resist this ruling. They announced that they are no longer dispensing medical marijuana but will remain as a political organization opposing the criminalization of marijuana and continuing to help the patients. "We're not closing down," Jones says.

Scott Imler, head of one California buyers club: "We're tired of the hiding, tired of the shame--we wanted to move past that. We're not prepared to go back to hiding or to buying on the streets." Rev. Lynnette Shaw, who operates a cannabis club in Marin County, said her organization would continue to distribute marijuana to eligible patients. Valerie Corral of the Santa Cruz Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana said: "It's not going to change what we do unless they physically come in and stop us."

Since the Supreme Court ruling did not definitively rule out a "medical exception" for the consumption of medical marijuana (without organized distribution), there has been open discussion of helping patients cultivate their own--including by turning the existing California buyers cooperatives into patients' "grow rooms." The problem with growing your own medicine is that people often don't have time: Scott Imler points out, "Starting chemotherapy, you only get a few days' notice. You can't wait the five months it takes to harvest a plant."

There is also expected to be resistance in the form of juries refusing to convict. Last month, a jury in state court in Sonoma County, Calif., acquitted a man who offered a medical-necessity defense to a charge of cultivating 850 marijuana plants.


"Eventually, the U.S. is going to have to make some kind of exception for medical marijuana. Until then, it'll be like the French resistance--a lot of people risking their lives to keep others alive."

Kenneth Toglia, of the Patients' Cooperative

How do you explain why the government would wage war on marijuana? You have to ask yourself: what kind of a society demonizes and criminalizes this plant in order to implement a program of repression, spying and incarceration of the masses? The war on drugs is a war on the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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