by Rob Kampia
On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can continue arresting patients for using medical marijuana in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. But the Court did not overturn state medical marijuana laws or in any way interfere with their continued operation.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court indicated that Congress -- not the Court -- must be the institution to change federal law to protect AIDS, cancer, and other medical marijuana patients from arrest. In about a week, Congress will get that chance.
Although some media reports have failed to make this clear, the validity of the medical marijuana laws of Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington were never at issue in the Supreme Court case, Gonzales v. Raich. These laws protecting patients from arrest and jail under state law remain in full force and effect.
The court has continued the status quo as it has existed since California passed the first of 10 state medical marijuana laws in 1996: Patients and caregivers in these states who legitimately possess or grow medical marijuana are protected under state law, but are not exempt from prosecution under federal anti-drug statutes.
It's important to note that federal authorities make only one percent of the more than 700,000 marijuana arrests made annually in the U.S. Ninety-nine out of 100 marijuana arrests are made by state and local police enforcing state and local laws. Therefore, in practical terms, state medical marijuana laws reduce patients' risk of arrest by 99%. That isn't perfect, but it is real and substantial.
Although other court cases focusing on other legal issues will move forward, it's safe to assume for now that patients cannot count on the federal courts for protection. This makes the path clear for officials at all levels.
First, the Bush administration should realize that just because it can arrest the sick and suffering does not mean it must. The administration can listen to the public and the medical community and end this cruel war on the sick. In a 1997 editorial, the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine called the federal ban on the medical use of marijuana "misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane," and that judgment is as true today as it was then.
Sadly, there is no indication that the administration will change course, which means Congress must change federal law. Many Americans don't realize that the federal ban on the medical use of marijuana was not put in place by the Food and Drug Administration or any medical or public health agency. The ban was enacted by Congress, and Congress can change it.
In mid-June, Congress will have the chance to use its spending authority to stop the Drug Enforcement Administration from attacking medical marijuana patients and caregivers in states that allow medical use. Representatives Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) will offer such an amendment when the appropriations bill to fund the Justice Department reaches the House floor. By passing the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, Congress can stop these pointless attacks on patients. Please visit http://hinchey.kintera.org to ask your representative to vote to protect patients; it just takes a minute.
Finally, state officials must continue to do everything they can to protect patients under state law. In states with medical marijuana laws, this means continuing to implement those laws exactly as before. And in states without such laws, legislators must realize that they are the best hope for sick and suffering patients. They must act now to protect patients under state law.
The day will come -- soon -- when Americans will look back at our current policy of arresting patients for using medical marijuana and see it as every bit as bizarre and incomprehensible as the laws that used to call for the burning of witches.
Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project -- www.mpp.org -- in Washington, D.C.