In a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that statutes like the California Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which permits the cultivation and use of marijuana under specific circumstances for medical purposes, are subject to being superceded by the federal governmentâ€™s authority to regulate interstate commerce. Thus, while not declaring Californiaâ€™s statute to be unconstitutional or void for any reason, the 6 Justice majority simply ruled that Congress has “the power to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana in compliance with California law.”
Thus, the ruling leaves many issues unresolved as the concluding paragraph of the majority opinion clearly indicates:
“Respondents also raise a substantive due process claim and seek to avail themselves of the medical necessity defense. These theories of relief were set forth in their complaint but were not reached by the Court of Appeals. We therefore do not address the question whether judicial relief is available to respondents on these alternative bases. We do note, however, the presence of another avenue of relief. As the Solicitor General confirmed during oral argument, the statute authorizes procedures for the reclassification of Schedule I drugs. But perhaps even more important than these 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. Under the present state of the law, however, the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be vacated. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Clearly, the state laws are still on the books. Doctors may still prescribe the use of marijuana for medical purposes without being criminally liable and there was no determination that the underlying purpose of the laws was flawed from a medical perspective. In addition, the Court did not (and could not) compel state law enforcement authorities to enforce the ruling. This leaves overburdened federal law enforcement agencies like the DEA, ATF, and FBI to monitor 11 states (at present) for cases where critically ill patients may be growing a few marijuana plants for the relief of excruciating pain. The chances of those agencies making anything but token efforts to seize such small amounts of the substance is unlikely especially in an area where local law enforcement authorities have always been primarily responsible for policing the matter.
In passing on this issue from a purely legal perspective, the decision also fails to address the very practical matter of: Who will arrest and prosecute critically or terminally ill people simply for growing a few plants for the purely medical purpose of alleviating their constant, excruciating pain? Besides; would any jury in a state which already passed a law allowing for such “compassionate use” of marijuana ever convict anyone who disobeyed the Supreme Courtâ€™s decision? The answers to these questions are obvious and, for that reason, many critically or terminally ill people who have been helped by the “compassionate use” laws have already stated that they will continue to use marijuana for medical purposes. While the White House has taken the position that this decision puts the matter to rest, the facts would seem to indicate that the battle has only just begun.