Justices turn down appeals from San Diego and San Bernardino counties seeking to throw out the state's 13-year-old medical marijuana law.
The Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals from two hold-out counties in Southern California that objected to the state's 13-year-old medical marijuana law and claimed it should be struck down as violating the federal drug control act.
Without comment, the court turned down the pair of appeals.
The action probably will clear the way for patients in San Diego and San Bernardino counties to seek county-issued identification cards that show they are eligible to possess and use marijuana.
The identification cards have been required under state law since 2004, but the two counties have refused to issue them. Their lawyers said the state's authorization for using medical marijuana conflicted with the zero-tolerance policy set by federal law.
"Our theory is that a state law which authorizes people to violate federal law is preempted" and, therefore, unconstitutional, Thomas Bunton, a deputy county counsel in San Diego, said last week.
Federal officials have maintained that all marijuana use is illegal, even in states such as California. But Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said recently that the federal government would not devote great effort to prosecuting low-level marijuana cases.
Lawyers for San Diego and San Bernardino counties had gone to court seeking a clear ruling on whether the state law violated the federal drug law. San Diego NORML, or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, had threatened to sue the county in 2005 for not complying with the state law by refusing to issue identification cards.
Last year, a state appeals court upheld the California medical marijuana law and said it was not rendered void by the federal drug law. The California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the two counties.
The counties then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Reform Law Project, said Monday's order "marks a significant victory for medical marijuana patients and their advocates nationwide." It dispels any remaining doubts that the state laws are valid, he said, and it "leaves ample room for states to move forward . . . with independent medical marijuana policies."
Since California's voters adopted the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, 12 other states have approved measures permitting medical use of marijuana: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. The New Hampshire Legislature passed a similar measure recently that awaits action by the governor.
The federal government, however, has maintained that the sale or use of marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. The 1970 law designates marijuana as a Schedule I drug that has "no currently accepted medical use" in the U.S.
Federal authorities say they can arrest and prosecute all who use or sell marijuana in states that have authorized medical use of the drug.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress and the federal government had the constitutional authority to regulate the sale and use of marijuana under its power over interstate commerce. The 6-3 decision, in the case of Gonzales vs. Raich, rejected the claim that personal use of homegrown marijuana was off-limits to federal authority. But the court did not rule on whether a state's law allowing medical use of marijuana was void because it conflicted with the federal law.
In their appeal, San Diego County's lawyers had questioned
whether California's marijuana law was "preempted under
the Supremacy Clause" of the Constitution by the federal
drug control law.
May 19, 2009 -- Press-Enterprise (CA)
Supreme Court Rebuff Allows Sale Of Medicinal Marijuana In San Bernardino County
By Darrell R. Santschi, The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino County residents previously unable to lawfully purchase marijuana for medicinal uses should soon be able to do so after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear challenges to the state's medical marijuana law.
"The Supreme Court is the end of the road," said Allen Hopper, litigation director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Law Reform Project. "There is no additional legal challenge left for the counties."
San Bernardino and San Diego counties had sued in San Diego County Superior Court three years ago contending that federal drug law trumps California law, therefore making the possession of marijuana in this state -- for medical or any other use -- illegal.
By refusing to hear the case, the court upheld lower-court rulings that rejected the counties' arguments.
Supporters say marijuana helps chronically ill patients relieve pain. Critics say the drug has no medical benefit and all use should be illegal.
California voters in 1996 decriminalized using marijuana for medicinal purposes, and the state Legislature passed a law seven years later spelling out regulations governing its use, including a requirement that counties issue ID cards to patients who have letters from their doctors confirming the medical need.
Riverside County has been issuing the cards ever since, county spokesman Ray Smith said by phone Monday.
Victoria Jauregui Burns, chief of the Riverside County Public Health Department's HIV program, said San Bernardino County residents cannot cross county lines to obtain ID cards because they must show proof of residence to obtain them.
Riverside County residents must also have a letter from a physician and pay a $153-a-year fee.
The county has averaged 350 applicants a year for the past three years, she said, but the volume of applicants has surged in recent months. Some 200 people have applied for the cards in the past three months.
Supervisors in San Bernardino and San Diego, and as many as seven other California counties that have been waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in, will now consider issuing the ID cards.
San Bernardino County will not issue the cards at least until supervisors are briefed by their attorneys on June 2, county spokesman David Wert said.
The ACLU's Hopper said county supervisors need to understand the meaning of the decision, "so I have no problem with them taking a little bit of time for their lawyers to explain what the legal effect of the decision is."
On the other hand, he said, "It's not rocket science. The Supreme Court said that what the Court of Appeals did stands. The Court of Appeals threw out the counties' challenge."
Scott Bledsoe, of Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains, said he doesn't trust the county to quickly begin issuing ID cards. He said he will lead as many as 50 medical marijuana proponents in a demonstration at today's supervisors meeting in San Bernardino to press for immediate action.
Bledsoe sued the county in January when it refused to issue him a medical marijuana ID, and he says Monday's Supreme Court decision "bolsters my suit.
"We were expecting, or hoping, that the Supreme Court would deny review of San Bernardino's case," Bledsoe said by phone. "We also assumed that they were going to continue obstructing, even after a ruling like that came down. I filed suit so we could get something going."
Fast Action Sought
Aaron Smith, California policy director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, called on the two counties to act immediately.
"It's time for San Diego and San Bernardino counties to end their war on the sick and obey the law," Smith said in a news release Monday.
Tom Bunton, a senior deputy county counsel in San Diego County who argued the case on behalf of both counties, said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, but that "I think it does" mean the end of the battle against California's medical marijuana law.
He said he will recommend that San Diego County supervisors begin issuing identification cards.
Hopper said the Supreme Court decision -- while unexplained by the court itself -- "really comes down to the sovereign right that the state has to decide for itself what its criminal laws are going to penalize or not penalize."
He said he is counting on the Obama administration to continue its hands-off policy on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, a sharp reversal from the Bush administration.
The ACLU's opposition brief to the Court: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/medmarijuana/39603lgl20090415.html
The Americans for Safe Access page on the case: www.americansforsafeaccess.org/article.php?id=4405
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