Published June 07. 2005 6:01AM
Drug’s Users Say Ruling Won’t End Their Effort
By DEAN E. MURPHY
New York Times
OAKLAND, Calif., June 6
Advocates of medicinal uses of marijuana suffered a legal setback on Monday in the United States Supreme Court, but there was little panic or despair amid the tears of disappointment.
“Just because we lost this little battle does not mean that the war is over,” Angel McClary Raich, one of the marijuana users whose case was before the Supreme Court, said at a news conference here. She added: “We’re just sick. We’re not criminals.”
Though some advocates worried that the ruling might embolden opponents of medical marijuana, as a practical matter, there are very few federal prosecutions of medical marijuana users nationwide.
An unpublished survey this year by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates the legalization of medical marijuana, found that there were fewer than 20 federal prosecutions of medical marijuana users or growers since 1996, when California passed the first medical marijuana law, said Daniel N. Abrahamson, the group’s director of legal affairs in Oakland.
All but a handful of the prosecutions, Mr. Abrahamson said, involved cases in which the users were accused of growing up to 1,000 plants or more. “They are selectively choosing big-fish cases, and are not sending a message to the average patient growing a few plants in the backyard,” Mr. Abrahamson said.
William L. Grant, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said that the emphasis had been to focus on “major trafficking organizations and attempt to disrupt and dismantle them from top to bottom, including their financial networks.”
Asked about the effect of the Supreme Court ruling on the federal enforcement, Mr. Grant said, “Our mission is going to remain the same.”
In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices ruled that the federal authorities might prosecute sick people who used marijuana under their doctors’ supervision, even in states that allowed the medicinal uses. Eleven states have state laws allowing some uses of medicinal marijuana, even though federal law outlaws the drug.
Opponents of the medical marijuana laws said they were hopeful that the court ruling would put a damper on efforts by advocacy groups to get similar laws passed in other states. Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, said the laws were dangerous because they treated marijuana like drugs approved for use by the federal government.
“We don’t want truly sick and dying people to be scammed into thinking they are being medically treated by smoking pot,” Ms. Fay said. “We believe that people who are truly sick need good, legitimate medicine.”
John Redman, director of Californians for Drug Free Youth, a drug abuse prevention group based in San Diego, said marijuana rivaled alcohol as a source of problems among young people who sought substance abuse treatment. He said the medical marijuana dispensaries across the state – there are an estimated 80 of them in California – were rife with problems.
“You have unfettered access to a potentially harmful drug, and that is a problem,” Mr. Redman said.
Reaction among the state authorities to the court ruling was mostly muted.
The authorities in Oregon stopped issuing marijuana registration cards for new patients, though the 10,000 patients already registered with the state can still receive marijuana under state law with a doctor’s recommendation.
“We need to proceed cautiously until we understand the ramifications of this ruling,” Dr. Grant Higginson, who oversees the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, said in a statement. Oregon officials described the move as temporary, and said that the state attorney general had been asked to issue an opinion as guidance.
The attorney general in Montana, Mike McGrath, said that he stood by that state’s medical marijuana law and that the federal authorities “will be on their own” if they tried to prosecute patients registered under the state law.
“I think it’s going to be up to the Bush administration to make a decision as to how it’s going to deal with theses cases as a matter of policy,” Mr. McGrath, a Democrat, said.
Bill Lockyer, the California attorney general, said the ruling left patients vulnerable to federal prosecution and illustrated “the vast philosophical difference between the federal government and Californians on the rights of patients to have access to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives.”
California was the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, when voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Initiative, in 1996. The state is believed to have the vast majority of the estimated 115,000 registered medical marijuana users nationwide.
“There is something very wrong with a federal law that treats medical marijuana the same as heroin,” Mr. Lockyer, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Ms. Raich, who suffers from multiple illnesses, including chronic wasting syndrome, said she believed that she was alive because of her medicinal use of marijuana. At a tearful news conference, she said that she intended to continue using the drug, which she takes every two hours, including when she has surgery.
“We are not being disobedient,” she said. “We are just using this medicine because it saves our lives.”
Other users said they were frightened by the prospect of federal agents’ arriving at their doorstep and might give it up.
Dana May, 47, a father of three in Aurora, Colo., has already had his home raided by state and federal officials for growing marijuana for himself and two other people with medical conditions. Mr. May, who has been on disability for 10 years because of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, described his pain as nightmarish. But his fear of the authorities, he said, would put an end to his marijuana growing.
“It’s sad,” Mr. May said. “The first thing that went through my mind when I heard about the ruling was, ‘I hope I don’t get suicidal again.’ “
In at least one case in California, the ruling could make the difference between freedom and imprisonment. Bryan J. Epis was freed from prison last year by a federal appeals court after serving two years of a 10-year sentence for growing marijuana plants for medicinal purposes at his home in Chico.
Mr. Epis, 38, was freed pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. He will now have to go back to court and request a permanent reduction in his sentence.
“Yeah, I’m nervous,” Mr. Epis said.