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Supreme Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Case

By Elaine Cassel

During its spring 2001 term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a California case that could decide whether people who use marijuana for pain relief and other therapeutic purposes can continue to do so.

In 1996, California enacted a law allowing seriously ill patients and their primary caregivers to grow marijuana for medical purposes upon a physician's recommendation. Nine other states have similar laws that will be affected by the high court's ruling (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington).

But while states passed laws to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in their jurisdictions, the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 makes it illegal to distribute or manufacture marijuana. Lawyers for Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the California group that the federal government tried to stop from distributing marijuana to sick patients, argue that there is no other lawful drug alternative that helps chemotherapy patients stave off nausea or that stimulates the appetite of AIDS patients. The cooperative and other medical-use proponents have called upon Congress to amend the Controlled Substances Act to make cannabis available upon a physician's prescription, so that patients don't have to grow it.

A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine concluded that marijuana might help with pain relief, nausea, and appetite stimulation, and that people who don't respond well to other drugs might have better results with marijuana. However, the study recommended research on the mechanism by which cannabis works to relieve nausea, lessen pain, and increase appetite, and on developing a method for patients to obtain the benefits of marijuana without inhaling it and risking the cancer or lung damage associated with smoking.

U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and Jeffrey Jones reached the Supreme Court after the federal government sought an injunction to bar the California cooperative from distributing marijuana. Charles Bryer, a federal judge in California and the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer, sided with the government and ordered the injunction, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

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