Friday, December 24, 2004

The issue of legalizing the medical use of marijuana is now where it belongs -- in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation should know sometime next year whether states can operate outside federal law by permitting the therapeutic use of marijuana.

Last month, both sides presented their arguments before the high court justices. And, at first blush, the marijuana proponents appear to be underdogs in the super-charged case.

For example, Justices David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer, considered among the court's liberal-moderate wing, seemed skeptical.

Souter noted that about 10 percent of Americans use illegal drugs, and that states which now allow marijuana for medical use might not be able to prevent recreational users from taking advantage.

It should be noted however, according to provisions of the law in states where it is legal, the use of marijuana of for medical reasons would have to be prescribed by a physician.

Breyer remarked, "Everybody will say mine is medical."

The issue made its way to the Supreme Court in a lawsuit brought by two California women, Angel Raich and Diane Monsoon, after federal agents confiscated marijuana from Monsoon's yard. Both women are seriously ill. Raich has a brain tumor, and has used marijuana to help ease the pain.

California is among 11 states, Michigan not included, that have passed medical marijuana laws since 1996. The others are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

One might conclude that with justices such as Souter and Breyer expressing reservations, the federal prohibition against marijuana use will prevail. However, it's no slam-dunk. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia -- the two most conservative members of the tribunal -- are known for their strong support of states' rights. Also, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, another conservative, is suffering from thyroid cancer. Raich expressed the hope that the 80-year-old justice's chemotherapy treatments "would soften his heart about the issue."

We read with interest earlier this week that, according to an AARP poll, nearly 75 percent of Americans middle age and older support legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Our view is that this is a states' rights issue. If the people of a state vote to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the U.S. Justice Department should not have the power to overrule them. People in great pain -- especially those with terminal illnesses -- and their doctors ought to be given latitude to ease the suffering. As to the danger of addiction, we would point out that doctors already prescribe powerful opiates to critically ill patients. It has been shown that most of those who survive such treatments do not become addicted.

What justices say from the bench while hearing oral arguments in a highly visible case does not always indicate how they will vote. Indeed, this case seems likely to become one that will not be decided strictly along ideological lines.