Weed win

9th Circuit Court rules in favor of local medpot user

GREEN THUMB Diane Monson shows the remnants of her pot garden a few days after it was torn up by DEA agents, along with a copy of California’s medical-marijuana law.

GREEN THUMB Diane Monson shows the remnants of her pot garden a few days after it was torn up by DEA agents, along with a copy of California’s medical-marijuana law.

Photo By Tom Angel

Medical marijuana advocates scored a major court victory against the federal government Tuesday, as a panel of three judges in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of an Oroville woman whose marijuana garden was raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency in August of 2002.

Diane Monson, who made headlines when agents from the federal DEA ripped up her six-plant garden, said she was happy and relieved the court battle was over.

“I’m very excited. This is a big victory for states’ rights,” she said.

When asked how it felt to beat John Ashcroft in court, an ebullient Monson chuckled, replying, “I think this current administration is gathering more power than any in history, and I feel like this is at least a tiny stop to their steamrolling over civil rights in this country.”

Monson, who inhales vaporized cannabis to cope with a painful and degenerative back condition, was joined in her suit by fellow medpot user Angel McClary Raich, for whom the suit (Raich v. John Ashcroft) is named. Lawyers retained by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and California NORML, two organizations that lobby for the regulated legalization of marijuana, helped win the suit.

The case centered on an incident that occurred when a group of DEA agents, who were working with Butte County sheriff’s deputies on an unrelated cultivation case, stumbled onto Monson’s garden and decided to take it out, over the objections of Monson, the deputies and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

The action spurred a turf war between Ramsey and the local DEA, which ended with Ramsey cutting back on joint operations with the agency. But it also sparked a lawsuit that, with this recent ruling, could set a national precedent for the nine states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana when it passed Prop. 215, the so-called Compassionate Use Act, in 1996. Since then, state and federal law have been at odds, with the feds taking the position that, under the Controlled Substances Act, even small amounts of marijuana are illegal to possess, grow or sell. Since Prop. 215 set no limits on possession or cultivation, counties were forced to draw up their own guidelines for medical users. In Butte County, patients are able to possess six plants and a pound of cured pot, which put Monson’s garden within legal limits.

Monson’s winning court argument basically stated that the federal government has no right to contradict state law, except in cases where interstate commerce is affected. Ramsey, who filed an amicus brief on Monson’s behalf, agreed.

“Having marijuana for personal, medical use does not affect interstate commerce,” he said. “From a Bill of Rights, 10th Amendment standpoint, it’s very important.”

Ramsey said he opposes legalizing marijuana but is sworn to uphold state law. When asked how he felt about being on the same side as MPP and NORML, which are working toward legalization, Ramsey said, “I’m always up for irony.”

It is unclear at this point what recourse the Justice Department will take. Federal lawyers in the case have reportedly said they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but if the top court refuses to hear the case, the 9th Circuit decision could set a legal precedent, upholding the rights of states to allow medical marijuana. A recent case, in which the government had threatened to strip cannabis-prescribing doctors of their right to prescribe any drugs, was recently refused by the top court, leaving the doctors’ 9th Circuit win intact.

Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for MPP, said it wasn’t clear yet how the ruling would affect marijuana law. But he noted that none of the courts involved in the decision had questioned the medical use of cannabis.

“Every court that has looked at this has acknowledged that these women had a medical need for marijuana. Even the federal government didn’t dispute that,” he said. “So, putting all the legalities aside, why are they trying to hurt these women? What does it prove?”

Monson, for her part, said she hopes the government will let the recent ruling stand.

“I do not want to go before the Supreme Court," she said. "It’s just very good that justice and compassion came out on top.”