HIGHEST AMERICAN COURT REJECTS MEDICAL MARIJUANA
LOS ANGELES -- Until yesterday, the unmarked office above an auto-parts dealership on a busy Los Angeles street was a singular kind of pharmacy. Patients suffering from AIDS, glaucoma or similar ailments would enter with a doctor's note and walk out with small, legal bundles of marijuana.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that pot pharmacies, including the unmarked office of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, can no longer legally grow and distribute medicinal marijuana.
The decision will inevitably affect suffering Americans, many of whom vowed yesterday to keep using pot.
But the court's unanimous ruling also opens a sharp divide between the United States, which strictly considers marijuana an illegal narcotic, and Canada, where the federal government has recently created new regulations to legalize and regulate it as a prescription drug.
The ruling ends a five-year period during which pot was legally distributed in California, Arizona and a half-dozen other states that passed plebiscites allowing the use of so-called medicinal marijuana.
Pot pharmacies, usually known as cannabis buyers' clubs, popped up in these states' cities and some doctors issued prescriptions to patients suffering from arthritis, anorexia or stress.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court ruled that patients with prescriptions cannot be exempted from U.S. drug laws, which classify marijuana as being in the same class as cocaine and heroin.
"Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," Judge Thomas wrote in his decision.
The case, the United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-operative, was brought in 1998 against six marijuana distributors in the San Francisco Bay area. The federal government sought an injunction shutting them down, but the distributors' lawyers argued successfully that drug laws leave room for medical applications.
Yesterday's Supreme Court decision overturned that interpretation, exempting only U.S. government drug research.
This puts patients on unstable legal ground in states that have passed medical-pot plebiscites -- under state law, they can be prescribed marijuana and use it, but federal law prohibits them from growing it or obtaining it.
In theory, the U.S. Congress could pass a law to exempt the medicinal sale of pot, but the current Republican administration has taken a strong zero-tolerance approach to even mild recreational drugs.
Still, yesterday's ruling did not directly address the issue of state initiatives. And many patients said they are willing to face arrest in order to continue using marijuana.
"I'm not going to comply, personally, with the law," said Mary Lucey, a Los Angeles woman who said she needs "a couple puffs" to hold down the 12-pill AIDS drug regime she has been taking for 15 years. "I'm more concerned about the risk of death than I am about the risk of arrest."
Most of the larger clubs also said they'll stay open.
"Until our members decide otherwise, we're going to continue to cultivate and harvest and make available marijuana to legitimate medical users," said Scott Imler, founder and president of the Los Angeles centre.
"It's up to the [U.S.] Attorney-General and the Drug Enforcement Agency to pursue whether they want to go after AIDS patients and little old ladies with glaucoma."
Doctors have increasingly recognized cannabis as a useful drug for patients suffering from acute pain, nausea or appetite loss.
AIDS patients have found it effective in countering the nausea brought on by their drug cocktails, and cancer patients often find it a less addictive alternative to opiates in easing the effects of chemotherapy.
In Canada, the federal government recently began implementing rules that allow the licensed growing of marijuana on behalf of patients who have prescriptions. The rules would make Canada one of the first countries to have government-licensed pot farms. ( In its current issue, the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls for the government to go even further and decriminalize marijuana for personal use. )
When Ottawa's new rules were announced last month, Health Minister Allan Rock said Canada is "acting compassionately by allowing people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses to have access to marijuana for medical purposes."
The regulations were prompted by a decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ruled that federal laws forbidding marijuana possession are unconstitutional.
"It's as if we're moving in a completely opposite direction from the Americans," said Philippe Lucas, a Victoria schoolteacher who runs the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, a pot pharmacy similar to the ones in California and other states.
However, Canadian pot distributors do complain about the flip side of regulated marijuana.
Mr. Lucas said Canada's new regulations will make it harder for patients to obtain marijuana, since all except chronic patients -- those likely to die within a year -- will require the approval of a doctor and at least one third-party expert before obtaining a permit, a process that could take months.
"It's hypocritical. My own doctor can get me medical cocaine or morphine or even heroin with a simple prescription, but if I need marijuana I need three specialists and a year of bureaucracy," said Mr. Lucas, who currently faces provincial drug charges stemming from a bust last November.