High court nips medical marijuana

Federal ruling causes some uncertainty here, but officials say the state’s law remains intact

By Cathy Logg

Herald Writers

EVERETT — Sick Washingtonians who have a doctor’s note to smoke marijuana can probably keep doing so, despite Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling confirming that it’s illegal under federal law to use marijuana for any reason.

But the high court’s ruling dealt a setback to the movement for "medical marijuana" laws.

Ruling 8-0, the court said that federal anti-drug law allows no "medical necessity" exception to the general prohibition on selling or growing marijuana.

Federal law "reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

But the ruling doesn’t affect the state law voters here approved by initiative in 1998 allowing some patients to use it to relieve their suffering, said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. The initiative was based on a bill written by Kohl-Welles, who has been pushing for years for legal medicinal use of marijuana.

She said Monday that the high court’s decision didn’t declare Washington’s law unconstitutional, so it still stands.

"It just ruled that medical necessity as a defense can’t be used to avoid a federal conviction," Kohl-Welles said.

"Our state law is still in place, and I really doubt that the federal government is going to start sending out DEA agents to try to find sick people who are using marijuana, at the recommendation of their doctors, to arrest them."

The federal government rarely prosecutes individuals for marijuana use.

What it means

Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling against using marijuana for medical purposes doesn’t directly invalidate Washington state’s law allowing it.

It’s still a federal offense, but federal agencies don’t have enough personnel to go around busting patients for smoking pot. Many local law enforcement officials say they’ll uphold state instead of federal law.

The ruling is a blow to marijuana distribution networks, which hoped to be able to provide pot to patients who instead must grow their own or buy it illegally.

The ruling could signal that the high court may not uphold nine state medical marijuana laws, should they be challenged.

The law is still on the books, agreed Gary Larson with the state attorney general’s office, but it’s also superceded by federal law, which means it will be up to local law enforcement officials whether to pursue prosecution under the federal law.

On Monday, local policing agencies were pondering what their plan would be, but not much is likely to change.

Everett police will discuss it at a staff meeting, Chief Jim Scharf said.

"Obviously it’s not a high priority at this time. We’ve got other issues that are more pressing," he said.

The city’s narcotics officers are assigned to the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force, which targets large amounts of drugs being manufactured or brought into the county, and "that’s what we’re going to focus on."

"They’re overloaded as it is. These types of cases are going to take some investigative time, and I don’t really know if that’s a good use of our time. We haven’t had the time to assess it, and we probably aren’t going to take the time," he said.

Other officials had similar feelings.

"I don’t think it’s going to change anything we do," Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said. "We’ll talk about it as a department and on the task force board.

"We’ve had only a few cases where people were arrested and claimed they were using marijuana medicinally. … Our policy is to check out their story and see if it’s true, and if they have a valid prescription for it," he said.

Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Downes said he hasn’t had time to consider the court’s ruling.

At Green Cross Patient Co-op in Seattle, co-founder and director Joanna McKee also expects little to change. Although a federal agent could arrest someone using marijuana medicinally, Seattle police have said their mission is to enforce state, not federal, law, she said.

Still, the ruling may have deterred additional states — eight others have a law similar to Washington’s — from joining the medical marijuana movement.

Supporters of medical marijuana say that the drug is often the only source of relief for cancer patients experiencing excruciating pain or AIDS patients enduring crippling nausea.

Opponents, however, say that there are abundant legal alternatives, including a synthetic form of the active ingredient in marijuana.

In the meantime, Kohl-Welles said she’ll keep working on clarifying the state law to determine the size of a 60-day supply of marijuana, which is what the law allows.

For the third year in a row, her legislation authorizing the state Health Department to make that determination died in the Legislature. But it got further this year —through the Senate and partway through the House — so she’s optimistic for next year.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

You can call Herald Writer Cathy Logg at 425-339-3437

or send e-mail to logg@heraldnet.com.

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