|Medical marijuana has strong support from voters and health organizations. The federal government, however, has resisted any change to marijuana’s illegal status at the federal level. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in Raich v. Gonzalesthat the federal government can prosecute medical marijuana patients, even in states with compassionate use laws, and several medical marijuana dispensaries in California have since been subject to Drug Enforcement Administration raids.Federal Law In the wake of the June 2005 Supreme Court decision, Congress had an opportunity to protect patients by passing an amendment to a Justice Department spending bill that would have prohibited the department from spending any money to undermine state medical marijuana laws. The amendment, offered for the third year in a row by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-22nd/NY) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-46th/CA), did not pass but got 161 votes – more than it has ever received before. This is substantial progress given that in 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 311-94 for a non-binding resolution condemning medical marijuana.Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, defined as having a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. Multiple petitions for rescheduling marijuana have been submitted by reform advocates over the last 30 years. The most recent, submitted in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, calls for a full review of the scientific research and medical practice regarding marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to respond to this petition.In 1978, the federal government was forced to allow some patient’s access to medical marijuana after a “medical necessity” defense was recognized in court, creating the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access program. The IND, which allowed some patients to receive medical marijuana from the government, was closed to new patients in 1992 after it was flooded by applications from AIDS patients. Today, seven surviving patients still receive medical marijuana from the federal government.
The 2005 Raich Supreme Court decision did not overturn or affect state law, and 99% of all marijuana arrests take place at the state or local level. This means that state laws afford substantial protection to medical marijuana patients. Currently, laws that effectively remove state-level criminal penalties for growing and/or possessing medical marijuana are in place in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Ten states, plus the District of Columbia, have symbolic medical marijuana laws (laws that support medical marijuana but do not provide patients with legal protection under state law).
New Mexico passed its medical marijuana bill in early 2007. In 1998, voters in the District of Columbia approved a medical marijuana initiative by 69% but Congress was able to nullify the vote results because D.C. is a federal district and not a state.
Thirteen states have medical marijuana research laws, and only fifteen states have never had a positive medical marijuana law.
In addition to changing state laws, medical marijuana advocates have pursued reform through the courts, most recently in the Raich v. Ashcroft Supreme Court case. Angel Raich, a medical marijuana patient in California, sued the federal government to stop federal raids against patients. Though she did not win the case, the ruling left state medical marijuana laws intact. She is now back in court with an appeal based on a different set of arguments. The new arguments assert that she should be allowed to use medical marijuana because she has the fundamental right to avoid death and severe pain under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments.
In 1997, Conant v. McCaffrey, a class-action lawsuit, was filed on behalf of physicians and seriously ill patients against Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey and other top federal officials who threatened to revoke prescription licenses or criminally prosecute physicians who recommend medical marijuana. In 2002, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously decided to uphold the right of doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients and of patients to receive that recommendation. Judge Mary Schroeder wrote the majority opinion, which noted that the federal government’s policy of revoking doctors’ licenses “leaves…no security for free discussion.” A concurring opinion by Judge Alex Kozinski stepped even further, noting the prevailing evidence on the medical usefulness of marijuana.
Medical marijuana is one of the most widely supported issues in drug policy reform. Numerous published studies suggest that marijuana has medical value in treating patients with serious illnesses such as AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and chronic pain. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, in the most comprehensive study of medical marijuana’s efficacy to date, concluded, “Nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety . . . all can be mitigated by marijuana.” Allowing patients legal access to medical marijuana has been discussed by numerous organizations, including the AIDS Action Council, American Bar Association, American Public Health Association, California Medical Association, National Association of Attorneys General, and several state nurses associations.
Public opinion is also in favor of ending the prohibition of medical marijuana. According to a 1999 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans are in favor of “making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering.” In a 2004 poll commissioned by AARP, 72% of Americans ages 45 and older thought marijuana should be legal for medicinal purposes if recommended by a doctor. Also, since 1996, voters in eight states plus the District of Columbia have passed favorable medical marijuana ballot initiatives.