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Slate's Jurisprudence: High Court Nixes Medical Pot

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In a moment, a conversation with someone who is deeply affected by our lead story today, which is this: The Supreme Court says no to the medical use of marijuana, even if a doctor says yes. Ten states currently allow medical marijuana use with a doctor's prescription. But in a 6-to-3 ruling today, the court says those state laws do not trump federal drug laws. The justices did note that Congress could change federal law to permit medical marijuana use.

Joining us is Emily Bazelon. She is legal analyst for our partners at the online magazine Slate and for DAY TO DAY.

Emily, hello again, and tell us about the case at issue here. It involves medical marijuana users in California; isn't that right?

EMILY BAZELON reporting:

Yes, that's right. In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allows sick people, under limited conditions, to use marijuana. The federal government quickly claimed that the California law was at odds with all the federal statutes that make marijuana possession and use a crime. But the case originally went up to the Court of Appeals of the 9th Circuit on the West Coast, and the marijuana users actually got a 2-to-1 ruling in their favor. And that ruling prevented federal agents from taking the marijuana supplies of the patients in this case. One of the women grows her own marijuana and uses it to ease severe back spasms, and the other has a brain tumor and can't grow her own crop, so she gets the drug free from anonymous donors. The 9th Circuit's reasoning was that Congress was overstepping its powers to regulate commerce between the states by trying to regulate home-grown and locally distributed marijuana that California had legalized under these particular conditions.

CHADWICK: Well, what does this decision mean for sick people who have been using marijuana? Do they have any recourse?

BAZELON: Well, Justice Stevens in his opinion referred to certain legal recourses that he thought that the patients might have, but really they're not going to be any protection against federal prosecution for them. Justice Stevens also talked about the marijuana users turning to the democratic process and trying to get their voices heard, quote, "in the halls of Congress." But so far the drive to legalize marijuana federally really hasn't gone anywhere, despite its progress in these 10 states that have passed these marijuana user laws for sick people.

CHADWICK: Emily, is the key issue in this case the standing of federal law as opposed to state laws here?

BAZELON: The key issue in this case has to do with Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause in the Constitution. For a long, long time, Congress has been allowed to do pretty much whatever it wants under the Commerce Clause, and the key case that the court relied on in the decision today is a 1942 case about wheat growers. It's called Wickard vs. Filburn, and it was about a farmer who owned a family dairy farm and was arguing that since all of the wheat he was selling was sold locally, Congress had exceeded its Commerce Clause powers in trying to regulate how he was selling that wheat. And in 1942, the Supreme Court disagreed with that reasoning.

The medical marijuana tried to argue that their case is different because the wheat grown in Wickard could have entered a national market, whereas when you're just growing pot on your windowsill for a dying woman, that's not going to happen. And it seemed in oral argument that there were a couple of justices who might be sympathetic to that argument, but it ultimately failed with the majority of the court. And Justice Stevens said that Congress can regulate an activity that only takes place within a state and that's not about a sale, if it thinks that failing to regulate that activity would impact the market between the states. So in other words, if you're only growing pot locally, but Congress thinks that by not prosecuting you it's going to affect how the general larger pot market works, then Congress can go ahead.

CHADWICK: It might in some way popularize, or help popularize, pot and therefore Congress has a role in saying no.

BAZELON: Right, exactly, popularize meaning having to do with the sale of pot, not just sort of a cultural popularization, but making it something that more people buy and sell.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Emily Bazelon. She's a legal analyst for our partners at the online magazine Slate.

Emily, thank you.

BAZELON: Thanks very much, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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