Supreme Court Says Feds Can Prosecute Medical Marijuana Even Though State Laws Protect It

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

On June 6, 2005, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that upholds the federal ban on the medicinal use of marijuana. The case of Gonzales v. Raich was decided on a 6-3 vote. This means that state laws allowing medical marijuana and federal laws prohibiting marijuana (even for medical purposes) continue to exist side-by-side.

In Washington, California, Oregon, and eight other states with medical marijuana laws, sick people who are covered by state law are still protected from state prosecution and imprisonment. Under federal law, these same people – some of the most seriously ill in our society – are still technically at risk of prosecution by federal agencies. In practice, nearly all low level marijuana cases are handled by state law enforcement. While most patients are unlikely to be dragged into federal court, the possibility does exist.

Here in Washington, the Medical Use of Marijuana Act was passed as I-692 by nearly 60 percent of the Washington’s voters in 1998. The law is meant to protect people who use marijuana to alleviate suffering caused by cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other dire illnesses. Washington voters had a clearly stated purpose in passing I-692:

The people find that humanitarian compassion necessitates that the decision to authorize the medical use of marijuana by patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses is a personal, individual decision, based upon their physician's professional medical judgment and discretion.

Washington’s voters chose to protect from state prison their seriously ill friends, neighbors, and family members who use marijuana to relieve their suffering. Patients and their doctors are to make treatment decisions, not police and prosecutors. Nothing about that is changed for patients by the Raich case, and an earlier case, Walters v. Conant, protects physicians from federal prosecution for advising patients abut medical marijuana.

In Washington, the status quo remains: our state and local police are still bound by the state medical marijuana law, and federal agencies are permitted to arrest sick people who treat themselves with marijuana.

State officials should do everything within their power to protect patients and caregivers, honoring the will of Washington’s voters. Federal authorities in Washington should continue to exercise their discretion to not to treat as criminals our state’s seriously ill residents who use marijuana as medicine.

As Justice Stevens wrote for the majority in Raich, “perhaps even more important than ... legal avenues is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress.” Congress is currently considering a bill called the “States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act” (H.R. 2087), which would allow states to decide locally whether or not to permit medical marijuana treatment. Under the proposed law, states could allow sick people and their doctors, rather than the government, to decide whether to use medical marijuana.