Federal Appeals Court OKs Medical Marijuana in Some Cases
By David Kravets, Associated Press

San Francisco -- December 16, 2003 . A federal appeals court ruled today that a law outlawing marijuana may not apply to sick people with a doctor's recommendation in states that have approved medical marijuana laws.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling 2-1 in a rare late-afternoon filing, said prosecuting these medical marijuana users under a 1970 federal law is unconstitutional if the marijuana isn't sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.

``The intrastate, noncommercial cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for personal medical purposes on the advice of a physician is, in fact, different in kind from drug trafficking,'' Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the majority.

The court added that ``this limited use is clearly distinct from the broader illicit drug market, as well as any broader commercial market for medical marijuana, insofar as the medical marijuana at issue in this case is not intended for, nor does it enter, the stream of commerce.''

The decision was a blow to the Justice Department, which argued that medical marijuana laws in nine states were trumped by the Controlled Substances Act, which outlawed marijuana, heroin and a host of other drugs nationwide.

The case concerned two seriously ill California women who sued Attorney General John Ashcroft. They asked for a court order letting them smoke, grow or obtain marijuana without fear of federal prosecution.

The case underscores the conflict between federal law and California's 1996 medical marijuana law, which allows people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation.

A U.S. District judge tossed the case in March, saying the Controlled Substances Act barred him from blocking any potential enforcement action against medical marijuana patients Angel Raich and Diane Monson. Today's ruling sends the case back to the district judge.

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state have laws similar to California, which has been the focus of federal drug interdiction efforts. Agents have raided and shut down several medical marijuana growing clubs.

The appeals court, the nation's largest, does not have jurisdiction over Colorado and Maine.

The case is Raich v. Ashcroft, 03-15481.

David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for a decade. Published: December 16, 2003 Copyright: 2003 Associated Press