Tony Newman at (212) 613-8026 or Elizabeth M
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the federal government has the authority to prosecute cancer and AIDS patients who use marijuana for medical reasons, even in states where it is legal. The Majority, which expressed sympathy for medical marijuana patients, declared that it was up to Congress to change federal law to protect sick and dying patients. The U.S. House of Representatives will soon consider an amendment that would prevent federal law officials from going after those patients in states that have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. When the U.S. House of Representatives considers a Justice Department funding bill (probably next week) Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-22nd/NY) and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-46th/CA) will offer a bi-partisan amendment on the House floor prohibiting the Justice Department and DEA from spending any money on undermining state medical marijuana laws. 148 Representatives voted for a similar amendment last year – 70% of Democrats and 19 Republicans.
In recent years eleven states have enacted laws allowing people to use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. While federal marijuana law contains no medical exception, federal law enforcement agencies have the authority to prioritize resources in favor of fighting terrorism and violent crime. They have not always done so, however: less than a month after 9/11, dozens of DEA agents raided and closed a Los Angeles hospice that provided marijuana to almost 1,000 patients with AIDS, cancer, and other terminal illnesses. The hospice was legal under state law and operated with the support of local elected officials and law enforcement officers. Several months later, on the same day that the Justice Department asked law enforcement agencies to be on the highest possible alert for impending terrorist attacks, dozens of DEA agents made numerous medical marijuana-related arrests throughout the State of California.
“Congress needs to send a clear message to federal bureaucrats that our nation has higher priorities than busting sick people,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “If members of Congress vote to continue diverting resources from fighting terrorism to arresting cancer and AIDS patients, we will make sure voters know about it.”
Only a legal challenge stopped further raids. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has the authority to arrest and prosecute people for medical marijuana, many groups worry that the Justice Department will resume wasting scarce law enforcement resources busting cancer and AIDS patients. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment is a chance for Congress to change law enforcement’s priorities.
“This amendment is a win-win for elected officials. It gives them the opportunity to do what’s right, which is also popular with their constituents,” added Piper. Over 70% of Americans support sick patients’ right to medical marijuana. The medical benefits of marijuana for AIDS, cancer and other patients are well established. The Institute of Medicine has determined that nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety “all can be mitigated by marijuana.” The esteemed medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, reports that marijuana’s active components “inhibit pain in virtually every experimental pain paradigm.” The federal government, however, is behind the times. It still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, defined as a having no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and peyote. In contrast, cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine, opium and PCP are in Schedule II and available for medical use.