High Court’s Narrow Ruling Has No Effect on State Medical Marijuana Laws

Press Release May 13, 2001
Media Contact

Roberta Green, Campaign for New Drug Policies at 310-394-2952

The sponsors of the California ballot measure that spawned today’s Supreme Court decision say that the ruling has no effect on nine current state laws that permit patients to grow and use small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes.

Bill Zimmerman, director of Americans for Medical Rights, which has sponsored eight successful state medical marijuana initiatives, said, “Not one word of this decision diminishes the rights of states to legalize the medical use of marijuana under state law. Since virtually all low-level marijuana cases are prosecuted under state laws, the nine states now regulating patients’ use of marijuana will continue to do so.”

Zimmerman also said the court’s ruling on medical marijuana distribution is not the final word. “The court has judged one form of marijuana distribution, a cooperative arrangement with city approval, to be illegal,” Zimmerman said. “But this decision does not foreclose creation of state-sponsored medical marijuana distribution systems. Two states, Nevada and Maine, are now actively considering such legislation. The question of federal supremacy in such matters is for another day.”

But Zimmerman acknowledged that the court’s decision was a blow to medical marijuana supporters. “We know that tens of thousands of seriously ill Americans are going to be shaken by today’s news,” Zimmerman said. “It is appalling to see the insensitivity of our government in the face of so much real human suffering.”

“But,” Zimmerman continued, “the Supreme Court was merely interpreting the inhumane, irrational federal laws created by Congress – and that is where we must now focus our battle. It’s time for members of Congress to take off the blinders to the suffering they have caused through intolerant and politically motivated drug laws.”

“There are real victims of the federal ban on medical marijuana. If Congress dared to hold one hearing to meet the patients whose lives have been improved or even saved by medical marijuana, the ban could be ended overnight.”

Hope for States’ Rights Approach

Advocates were encouraged by some of the words of Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote a separate, concurring opinion in the medical marijuana case. Justice Stevens said he feared the court’s main opinion had gone too far by suggesting that a so-called “medical necessity” defense would be unavailable in any case involving federal marijuana laws – not merely one in which distribution of the drug were at issue, but even possession.

Justice Stevens said, “The overbroad language of the court’s opinion is especially unfortunate given the importance of showing respect to the sovereign states that comprise our federal union.” He noted that California and several other states have chosen to “serve as a laboratory” by passing laws to protect medical marijuana patients in spite of the federal ban on the drug. Justice Stevens wrote, “This case does not call upon the court to deprive all such patients of the benefit of the necessity defense to federal prosecutions.”

Justice Stevens also noted that the president has previously taken a states’ rights position on medical marijuana – opposing the medical use of the drug generally but preferring to allow state experimentation.

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

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