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U.S. News

Supreme Court Upholds Lower Court Decision Allowing Doctors, Patients to Discuss Medical Marijuana Without Punishment

October 15, 2003

The Supreme Court on Tuesday let stand a lower court's October 2002 decision that allows doctors to discuss medical marijuana with their patients without federal authorities revoking the doctors' federal prescription licenses, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/15). Without comment, the court refused to hear the Bush administration's challenge of a 2002 lower court ruling upholding a federal district court injunction blocking the administration's efforts to prevent doctors from telling their patients that medical marijuana may benefit them (Lane, Washington Post, 10/15). A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year unanimously ruled that the federal government could neither investigate nor revoke the licenses of physicians who recommend marijuana use to ill patients, such as people with AIDS. Chief Judge Mary Schroeder, who wrote the court's opinion, rejected the government's argument that Proposition 215 -- the California state law that allows patients to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation -- subverts federal illegal drug use prevention efforts. She said that punishing doctors who recommend medical marijuana "effectively prohibited candid discussions between doctors and patients, in violation of the First Amendment." Schroeder also said that the federal policy violates states' traditional authority over the practice of medicine. However, the court panel maintained that prescribing marijuana, as opposed to recommending it, is illegal (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/15). In his appeal petition, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson said the 9th Circuit's ruling in the case "impairs the Executive's authority to enforce the law in an area vital to the public health and safety" (Washington Post, 10/15). Olson also said that because drugs are "tight[ly] regulated," physicians are not "free to recommend potentially dangerous substances," according to the Los Angeles Times (Savage/Bailey, Los Angeles Times, 10/15).

The Supreme Court's decision to refuse to hear Walters v. Conant is not a "nationwide ruling," but instead applies only to states in the 9th District, which includes seven states with medical marijuana laws -- California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, the Chronicle reports. Maine and Colorado have similar medical marijuana laws but are in other circuits and therefore are not affected by the ruling (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/15). Dr. Marcus Conant, an AIDS specialist in San Francisco and the lead plaintiff in the case, said that the court's decision "means that I can do my job again and have real conversations with my patients about medical marijuana as part of their treatment options" (Los Angeles Times, 10/15). John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the Supreme Court decision is only related to doctor-patient relationships and does not change the law regarding the "cultivation and trafficking" of marijuana, according to the Chronicle. He added, "It remains the charge of every responsible public official and medical professional to continue to protect the health of American citizens and reduce the harms caused by marijuana and other dependency-producing drugs" (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/15).

DEA Not Deterred
The Supreme Court's decision marked a "surprise defeat" for the federal government's fight against the medical marijuana "movement," according to the Post (Washington Post, 10/15). Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Policy Litigation Project, said that if the Supreme Court had heard the case and overturned the 9th Circuit Court's ruling, "it would have been the end of medical marijuana in one fell swoop" (Greenhouse, New York Times, 10/15). White House spokesperson Claire Buchan said that the Bush administration "[a]s a matter of policy ... oppose[s] any efforts to legalize marijuana" (Kravets, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/15). Drug Enforcement Administration officials said that the Supreme Court's action will "not deter their anti-cannabis campaign" in states with medical marijuana laws, the Los Angeles Times reports. DEA spokesperson Richard Meyer said, "It's going to be business as usual. Marijuana remains an illegal drug and our mission remains the same: to disrupt the trafficking of illegal drugs" (Los Angeles Times, 10/15).

Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs at the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, which along with the ACLU represented the doctors and patients in the lawsuit, said, "I think you will now see more movement in California and other states to make medical marijuana more of a reality," adding, "I have heard from dozens of patients today who are breathing a huge collective sigh of relief" (Murphy, New York Times, 10/15). The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that there are at least 20,000 medical marijuana users "in California alone," USA Today reports (Willing, USA Today, 10/15). California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) said that he hopes the court's decision and recent state legislation on the issue will make the federal government ease up on its "overbearing enforcement practices," the New York Times reports (New York Times, 10/15). Outgoing Gov. Gray Davis (D) on Sunday signed into law a bill (SB 420), sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D), that aims to clarify the state's medical marijuana law by creating state-issued identification cards for medical marijuana patients and health care providers and provides guidelines on how much marijuana they can possess and grow (Fletcher, Sacramento Bee, 10/14).

NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday interviewed Dr. Milton Estes, medical director of California's Forensic AIDS Project and a plaintiff in the case, about the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case (Norris, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.

PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Tuesday interviewed Dr. Andrea Barthwell, deputy director of ONDCP, and Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, about the decision (Ifill, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.

Back to other news for October 15, 2003


Reprinted with permission from You can view the entire Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery at The Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report is published for, a free service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, by The Advisory Board Company. © 2003 by The Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. It is a part of the publication Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report. Visit the Kaiser Family Foundation's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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