Round Two Begins in Legal Fight to Force Feds to Honor States

Press Release January 30, 2006
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Daniel Berger, ACLU at (831) 471-9000

San Jose, CA – The city of Santa Cruz, California and a collective of Santa Cruz medical marijuana patients today asked a federal court to approve the city’s plan to provide medical marijuana directly to patients. The American Civil Liberties Union, Bingham McCutchen LLP, the Drug Policy Alliance and others filed legal documents setting out new claims based on an ordinance recently enacted by the Santa Cruz City Council that establishes the provision of medical marijuana as an official city government function. The legal papers were filed in County of Santa Cruz v. Gonzales.

The U.S. Constitution permits states to determine for themselves what is legal and what is illegal under state law, according to today’s filing. In the case of medical marijuana, the plaintiffs argue that the federal government has intentionally sabotaged this process, selectively utilizing arrests, prosecutions and other means in an effort to thwart state medical marijuana laws.

“The White House wants California to march in lockstep with its misguided prohibition of medical marijuana, but the Constitution says otherwise,” said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “The federal government cannot force California or the city of Santa Cruz to make medical marijuana use a crime, nor can the federal government use the threat of criminal prosecution to intentionally sabotage state and local laws that it does not like.”

In addition, the group points out that federal government interference with the ability of seriously ill, in many cases terminal, patients to use medical marijuana deprives them of basic due process rights in the Constitution – denying patients access to the only medicine that addresses otherwise fatal symptoms of their conditions.

County of Santa Cruz v. Gonzales originated in 2003 when Bingham McCutchen LLP and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), along with private attorneys Gerald F. Uelmen and Benjamin Rice, sued the federal government for raiding a Santa Cruz-area medical marijuana cooperative, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM). The case was delayed pending the outcome of last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Raich v. Gonzales, in which the Court held that the federal government maintains power to enforce federal marijuana laws even in states that have made medical marijuana legal under state law.

However, the Raich decision left intact the ability of individual states to enact and implement their own medical marijuana laws. Responding to local patients, Santa Cruz enacted a first-of-its-kind ordinance to provide medical marijuana as a city function.

“We are asking the court to recognize the individual constitutional rights of patients, along with the city’s right to implement California’s medical marijuana laws,” said Frank Kennamer, an attorney with Bingham McCutchen who represents WAMM and individual patients in the lawsuit. “The Santa Cruz ordinance represents the city’s sincere attempt to provide patients with a safe and legal source of medical marijuana without exposing them to the danger of federal criminal prosecution. These patients have a constitutional right to their medicine.”

California passed Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, ten years ago, making medical marijuana legal under state law. Eleven other states have since enacted similar measures. Today’s legal papers state that, “the federal government’s campaign against California’s medical marijuana laws has continued unabated” and that the federal government “continues to purposefully interfere with California and other states’ medical marijuana laws, intending to coerce states to recriminalize medical marijuana.”

The legal papers cite as evidence of the federal government’s “campaign” against state medical marijuana laws federal interference in state legislative decisions to legalize medical marijuana, federal law enforcement decisions to focus on medical marijuana users to the exclusion of similarly situated non-medical marijuana users and federal threats to doctors who recommend medical marijuana to patients.

“The Santa Cruz case not only raises fundamental constitutional claims never before decided by the judiciary in the context of medical marijuana, but also offers some of the most compelling facts ever presented by patients to the courts,” said Daniel Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “At the heart of the Santa Cruz case are patients using marijuana to stay alive and to live out their last days with dignity, control and comfort. Their stories and their plight underscore the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by their constitution – freedoms that federal officials are trying to squash.”

County of Santa Cruz v. Gonzales is currently before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division. In addition to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the lawsuit names as defendants U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents involved in the raid of WAMM, DEA Administrator Karen Tandy and Office of National Drug Control Policy Director John Walters.

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

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