California’s Medical Marijuana Laws Get Nod From Court

Press Release November 15, 2006

San Diego–Medical marijuana patients around the country scored a major win today, as a California Superior Court judge issued a preliminary ruling that state medical marijuana laws can co-exist with the federal law that prohibits all use.

Following oral arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access and the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as the California Attorney General’s office, a San Diego Superior Court judge appeared poised to reject the contention of three California counties — San Diego, San Bernardino and Merced — that the state’s medical marijuana laws are invalid because of a conflict with federal law. While no final opinion was issued, a tentative ruling released prior to the hearing dismissed the counties’ arguments in their entirety.

“We are looking forward to a major win for the democratic process and the constitutional rights of all Californians,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “This ruling destroys the claim that medical marijuana laws are inherently invalid and confirms that states need not march in lockstep with the federal prohibition of medical marijuana.”

Enacted in 1996, the Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215, removes legal penalties for patients who use marijuana on a doctor’s recommendation. The Medical Marijuana Program Act, passed by the California legislature in 2003, mandates an identification card program that helps law enforcement properly identify qualified patients.

Following the ruling, San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn indicated the counties’ willingness to abide by state law, telling the Associated Press, “All we wanted was guidance from the court telling us where we’re at so we don’t break any rules and lose any funding.”

Once the court finalizes its ruling, the ACLU, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) expect that the counties’ will move quickly to implement the state’s medical marijuana laws, as the group expressed during today’s hearing.

“Medical cannabis patients everywhere should soon breathe easier,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of ASA. “States can act to protect patients, and local officials are now on notice that they cannot hide behind the federal reluctance to acknowledge medical use of marijuana.”

The California Attorney General’s office joined the ACLU, ASA and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in arguing that state medical marijuana laws are not invalidated by conflicting federal statutes–an opinion previously voiced by the attorneys general of several other states, including Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon, which permit medical use of marijuana.

The groups argued that while the federal government is free to enforce its ban on medical marijuana, even in states such as California that permit its use, all states remain free to adopt and implement medical marijuana policies of their own design.

“The tentative ruling upholds the state of California’s sovereign right to fashion common-sense, responsible and compassionate drug policies for its residents” said Tamar Todd, an attorney for DPA. “Today’s ruling makes clear that states need not wage the federal government’s failed drug war.”

Eleven states have so far acted to fully and effectively protect the right of qualified individuals to use medical marijuana with the approval of a physician: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

The case originated from a lawsuit initially brought against the State of California by San Diego County, which was later joined by San Bernardino and Merced counties. The ACLU, ASA and DPA intervened in the proceedings on behalf of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers and doctors in order to assure adequate representation of those most impacted by the case.

The groups represent Wendy Christakes, the late Pamela Sakuda, William Britt and Yvonne Westbrook, all Californians who use physician-recommended marijuana to treat medical conditions and their side-effects, including chronic pain and sciatica, multiple sclerosis, rectal cancer, epilepsy and post-polio syndrome. The groups also represent Sakuda’s spouse and caregiver, Norbert Litzinger, as well as Dr. Stephen O’Brien, a physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment in Oakland, California, and believes that many of his seriously ill patients benefit from the medical use of marijuana.

“We just wish Pam had lived to see this,” said Sherer of ASA. Ms. Sakuda passed away on Friday after a long battle with cancer.

In addition to being co-counsel, ASA was also a party to the proceedings on behalf of its membership, which includes thousands of medical marijuana patients, caregivers and physicians residing in California.

The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) is represented by the group as well. WAMM is a medical marijuana collective and hospice located in Santa Cruz, California, whose 250 members, the majority of whom are terminally ill, use marijuana to treat a range of conditions.

The court’s tentative ruling, issued earlier today by Judge William R. Nevitt, will likely be finalized in the near future.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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