WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court appeared hesitant Monday to endorse medical marijuana for patients who have a doctor's recommendation.
Justices are considering whether sick people in 11 states with medical marijuana laws can get around a federal ban on pot.
Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top court lawyer, noted that California allows people with chronic physical and mental health problems to smoke pot and said that potentially many people are subjecting themselves to health dangers.
"Smoked marijuana really doesn't have any future in medicine," he said.
Justice Stephen Breyer said supporters of marijuana for the ill should take their fight to federal drug regulators - before coming to the Supreme Court, and several justices repeatedly referred to America's drug addiction problems. 1/4
Dozens of people, some with blankets, camped outside the high court to hear justices debate the issue. Groups such as the Drug Free America Foundation fear a government loss will undermine campaigns against addictive drugs.
The high court heard arguments in the case of Angel Raich, who tried dozens of prescription medicines to ease the pain of a brain tumor and other illnesses before she turned to pot.
Supporters of Raich and another ill woman who filed a lawsuit after her California home was raided by federal agents argue that people with the AIDS virus, cancer and other diseases should be able to grow and use marijuana.
Their attorney, Randy Barnett of Boston, told justices that his clients are law-abiding citizens who need marijuana to survive. Marijuana may have some side effects, he said, but seriously sick people are willing to take the chance.
Besides California, nine other states allow people to use marijuana if their doctors agree: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona also has a law permitting marijuana prescriptions, but no active program.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled against the government in a divided opinion that found federal prosecution of medical marijuana users is unconstitutional if the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.
Lawyers for Raich and Diane Monson contend the government has no justification for pursuing ill small-scale users. Raich, an Oakland, Calif., mother of two teenagers, has scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea and other illnesses. Monson, a 47-year-old accountant who lives near Oroville, Calif., has degenerative spine disease and grows her own marijuana plants in her backyard.
The Bush administration argues that Congress has found no accepted medical use of marijuana and needs to be able to eradicate drug trafficking and its social harms.
The Supreme Court ruled three years ago that the government could prosecute distributors of medical marijuana despite their claim that the activity was protected by "medical necessity."
Dozens of groups have weighed in on the latest case, which deals with users and is much more sweeping.
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, conservative states that do not have medical marijuana laws, sided with the marijuana users on grounds that the federal government was trying to butt into state business of providing "for the health, safety, welfare and morals of their citizens."
Some Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, urged the court to consider that more than 20,000 people die each year because of drug abuse. A ruling against the government, they said, would help drug traffickers avoid arrest, increase the marijuana supply and send a message that illegal drugs are good.
California's 1996 medical marijuana law allows people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation.
Medical marijuana was an issue in the November elections. Montana voters easily approved a law that shields patients, their doctors and caregivers from arrest and prosecution for medical marijuana. But Oregon rejected a measure that would have dramatically expanded its existing medical marijuana program.
The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, 03-1454.
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