Court May Have Doused a Fire, but it Still Smokes

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Theyíve been trying for four years now, but Californians just canít seem to shake those stodgy federal drug laws. Tuesday, at the White Houseís request, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency ban (by a vote of 7 to 1) on the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. Striking down a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in San Francisco that would have made "medical necessity" a defense against federal drug statutes, the Justices indicated they would consider the case for their fall docket.

If the Supreme Court does decide to take up the marijuana issue, it could be the first of many judicial forays into the subject; judging from the small but growing number of states that permit seriously ill patients to grow and use marijuana under medical supervision (California voters took the lead in 1996) the issue isn' going away anytime soon. And this particular case could prompt the Justices to take an unfamiliar position: While this Court consistently demonstrates a penchant for decentralizing power from the federal government in favor of the individual states, federal drug laws remain sacred cows.

That's despite a growing contingent of doctors, frustrated by the lack of nuance in federal drug laws pertaining to marijuana, who have begun to prescribe it to seriously or terminally ill patients — whose pain and loss of appetite often respond favorably to the drug, even after other controlled substances have failed. Many cancer and AIDS patients have found relief in marijuana, and painful symptoms of other diseases, like arthritis and multiple sclerosis, can be eased by a well-timed joint.

And that's quite apart from the issue of general legalization. At present, marijuana maintains an illogical berth in the roster of illegal drugs; the DEA website lists it alongside heroin and methamphetamine as a "drug of concern." Meanwhile, the lack of serious national debate surrounding the use of marijuana has left the countryís attitudes stagnant, with a knee-jerk reaction to the mere mention of any "illegal" drug meaning political estrangement for any politician willing to broach the topic.

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, is a notable exception. An outspoken advocate for legalizing pot, Johnson is also a tri-athlete who maintains steady popularity ratings in his state. And while most Americans probably arenít quite ready to embrace Johnsonís platform, there are plenty of compelling arguments to be made for legalizing medicinal marijuana use. We just have to get our fingers out of our ears long enough to hear them.