Feds just say no

In a decision that was sure to disappoint both medical-marijuana advocates and proponents of states’ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Monday that the federal government’s drug laws override those of the states, even in the case of sick or dying patients who use cannabis under a doctor’s recommendation.

The 6-3 ruling overturned a decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which had upheld the rights of two medical-cannabis users to grow and consume marijuana under California law. One of the appellants was Diane Monson, who lives in a small mountain community in the foothills above Oroville. Monson made local headlines in August 2002, when Butte County law enforcement and federal DEA agents raided her patch of six pot plants. The local cops recognized Monson’s right, as a medical-marijuana patient, to grow her own medicine. But the DEA follows federal law, which holds that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive substance with no medical value. The plants were taken by the feds after a three-hour standoff, and although Monson was never prosecuted, she joined a lawsuit against the government that would have barred federal agents from pursuing any further legal action against her.

Monson, reached at her home shortly after Monday’s ruling, said she would continue to ingest cannabis to control the symptoms of her various ailments. But she said she was tired of being in the public eye and hoped soon to “sink back into obscurity where I belong.”

“The AP’s running the tagline of me saying I’d better get ready to go to jail—hopefully that was just 7 a.m. histrionics on my part,” she said. “I think at this point it would be impolitic in the extreme of them to come up here and arrest me, but hey, what can I tell you?”

Monson’s suit (dubbed Raich vs. Ashcroft then changed to Gonzales vs. Raich on appeal) eventually wound its way to the high court, where activists hoped the justices would continue a string of decisions that have given the states more power to craft their own laws and reject federal intervention. Some activists even hoped that a ruling favorable to medical marijuana could land a serious blow to the federal government’s war on drugs, which has cost billions of dollars over some four decades and jailed millions of people, creating in the process what some have called a “prison-industrial complex.”

Those hopes were bolstered by the 9th Circuit Court’s 2003 decision on Raich vs. Ashcroft, which basically declared that the federal government’s right to regulate interstate commerce gave it no enforcement powers over people who grow and consume their own marijuana for medical purposes, as that activity has no appreciable effect on trade between the states.

But Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the majority decision for the high court, stated that “the regulation is squarely within Congress’ commerce power because production of the commodity meant for home consumption, be it wheat or marijuana, has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity.” The majority made no attempt to quantify that effect and made no judgment as to whether marijuana’s designation as a more dangerous substance than heroin, cocaine, PCP or methamphetamine was justified. Instead, Stevens wrote that “the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in Congress.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas expressed grave concerns about Monday’s ruling.

“If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause,” Thomas wrote, “then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers. … If the majority is to be taken seriously, the federal government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States.”

Justices Rehnquist and O’Connor also dissented.

For Monson, along with the thousands of other medical-marijuana patients throughout the nine states that allow its use, this latest ruling doesn’t actually change anything. Most will undoubtedly continue to use marijuana in defiance of federal law, believing it is the only substance that can help them deal with pain, nausea and other symptoms of chronic, incurable diseases.

“At this point I’m just going to keep on keeping on,” Monson said. “I’m going to keep growing the ganja, and the thing is, I know I’m really putting myself in harm’s way and I really hope to God they don’t [arrest me].”