High court to decide legality of Medicinal Marijuana

    In November 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a pivotal case that could protect patients who grow and use medicinal marijuana — in states where it’s legal — from federal prosecution.

    The California plaintiffs in Ashcroft v. Raich argued that the federal government does not have constitutional authority over their use of medicinal marijuana, or cannabis, as it is formally called.

    The cultivation of cannabis is legal in the state of California under certain circumstances. Patients have argued that their use and cultivation of the drugs are not commercial in nature and do not involve interstate commerce.

    The federal government, however, has argued that Congress’ constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce allows it to limit medical use of pot.

    The Ashcroft v. Raich case stems from four cannabis patients who, in October of 2002, filed a lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Karen Tandy for violating constitutional rights by forbidding the use of the drug in cases of medical necessity.

    The patients believed that they were protected by Proposition 215, “The Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act,” which passed in 1996 in California by a 56-percent majority vote. The state law allows seriously ill patients to obtain, cultivate and use cannabis, as long as it has been prescribed by a doctor.

    However, because federal laws supersede state laws, the government was able to send the DEA to search certain California homes and gardens for cannabis. This outraged the patients, who felt that the DEA was jeopardizing their health and safety.

    Angel McClary Raich, an Oakland, Calif., resident and one of the four plaintiffs in the case, suffers from an array of serious health problems, ranging from fibromyalgia to an inoperable brain tumor, and relies on cannabis for the stability of her health.

    Her husband, lawyer Robert Raich, has seen the beneficial effects of cannabis for his wife and is therefore fighting for her right to use the drug that he believes is preserving her life.

    “This case is about the rights of sick patients,” Raich said. “Terrorism should be the priority of the federal government. Medical regulation should be left to the state government.”

    Regarding the drug and its effects on patients, Raich was very positive.

    “Cannabis is inexpensive, has few side effects and relieves suffering with proven health benefits,” Raich said.

    In March 2003, the U.S. District Court in Northern California ruled against Raich. However, the Raich v. Ashcroft case proceeded to the ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where the judge ruled in favor of Raich in December 2003. The Bush administration responded by appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2004.

    “This case is based to win in the Supreme Court,” Raich said. “I am optimistic.”

    The Court is expected to give it’s verdict in the spring of 2005.

    Attorneys and a spokesperson for the Justice Department, which represents the federal government, did not return calls for comment.

    The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UCSD is quietly making its own contributions to medicinal studies of the drug.

    Founded in 2000, the CMCR remains the only state-funded cannabis research center in the country. In cooperation with UC San Francisco, UCSD provides the headquarters for the scientific research necessary to determine the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in treating terminally ill patients.

    The facility, which shares the office of UCSD’s HIV Neurobehavioral Research Center in Hillcrest, sees patients diagnosed with serious illnesses, such as cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis, and prescribes medicinal cannabis to test its efficacy for treatment.

    Andrew Mattison, assistant director of the center, said the main priority at CMCR is safety and efficiency.

    “[We want] to provide symptomatic relief for medical conditions that regular medications won’t help,” Mattison said.

    There has been surprisingly little investigation of the effects of marijuana, and facilities such as the CMCR are working to uncover the effects of the drug.

    Cannabis has been effective at relieving the symptoms of some patients. It can alleviate the pain, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by such serious illnesses as cancer and HIV.

    However, there are hazards involved, such as lung damage from smoking and low birth weight in babies born to cannabis users who smoked while they were pregnant.

    “It will be about 10 or 12 months before we disclose our [recent] findings,” Mattison said.

    Until then, the center plans to continue its outpatient program and research on the effects of medicinal cannabis on patients. UCSD students are eligible to work in administrative positions at CMCR, but doctors discourage direct student contact with patients because of confidentiality issues.

    The facility is not involved in legal aspects of the debate over medicinal marijuana, and Mattison declined to offer an opinion on Ashcroft v. Raich.

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