The 5-Minute Briefing: The future of medical marijuana

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The Independent US

What's the significance of the Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana?

What's the significance of the Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana?

The US Supreme Court has struck a blow against the medical marijuana movement, ruling that federal law enforcement agencies have the power to seize and destroy marijuana plants and arrest their growers - even in states which have passed medical marijuana laws. It is a particular blow to patients with Aids, cancer and other serious illnesses who use the plants as pain-relief medicine and must now regard themselves as criminals liable to prosecution.

Does this mean the end of medical marijuana in the United States?

Not exactly, but it does at least uphold an increasingly restrictive status quo. Under the Bush administration, which has taken a particularly hard anti-drug line, that status quo has meant regular raids on pot farms and distribution clinics. In California, the first and by far the biggest of the 10 states to sanction medical marijuana, officials will now be extremely reluctant to develop a proper infrastructure for distribution of the drug, which in turn will make it hard to regulate for quality, safety, and so on.

So is this a reactionary, right-wing assault on individual rights?

Strangely, it was the liberals on the Supreme Court who sided most strongly with the majority decision, and the conservatives who dissented. The court saw it mostly in terms of states' rights - a standard position among conservative jurists - versus the power of the federal government. The Bush administration argued that the federal government had a pre-established right to regulate commerce of any kind. The plaintiffs, and the lower courts, said this right applied only to interstate commerce and so had no relevance to home-grown marijuana. The Supreme Court disagreed, in a 6-3 vote.

Did the liberal justices argue that marijuana is not a legitimate medicine?

Again, the paradoxical answer is no. John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged that marijuana is effective, but said that it was up to Congress to enact more permissive laws. This was a somewhat disingenuous sentiment, since legislation has frequently been introduced in Congress and roundly rejected every time.

So can we expect a sudden rush of police raids and terminal Aids patients being hauled off in handcuffs?

Again, the answer is paradoxical. With budget deficits in Washington soaring and ever greater demands being placed on law enforcement to combat terrorism, the federal government is probably squeezed too tight to take significant action - especially as state law agencies are not going to be helping out. "The reality is, we don't have the time or resources to do anything other than going after large-scale traffickers and large-scale growers," a federal prosecutor, McGregor Scott, told the San Francisco Chronicle. In other words: the battle continues.