Court Watch: Medical Marijuana

Tuesday, 7 June 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that federal law trumps state law in regard to the medical use of marijuana. The federal government classifies marijuana as an illegal "controlled substance" that cannot legally be prescribed by doctors, but eleven states had passed laws allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana and patients to use it under doctors' supervision. The Court resolved the discrepancy between federal and state law in favor of federal law, and it was right to do so. However, the federal law restricting the medical use of marijuana is wrong and should be changed.

The 6-3 Court ruling is a reversal of a trend characteristic of the present Court to favor states' rights over federal rights. Whether this reversal is a harbinger of future rulings or only an aberration, like Bush v. Gore, remains to be seen. Regardless, it is the right decision. The move toward federalism began early in U.S. history, picked up steam after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and came into its own during the civil rights era, with landmark Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and federal laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The conservative Rehnquist Court has whittled away some of the hard-won benefits of federalism, as in its rulings concerning the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the Violence against Women Act, both of which curtailed federal authority over the states. The ruling in the medical marijuana case suggests that the Court, whose previous hard-line stance on states' rights had already begun slipping when it upheld the right of individuals to sue states under the Americans with Disabilities Act, is becoming more open to the idea of federalism. That's good, because "states' rights" has often been a codeword for discrimination, especially racial discrimination in the Jim Crow days so fondly remembered by latter-day champions of the Dixiecrat party. Americans' hope for civil rights rests in the hands of the federal government, not state governments, where local or regional prejudices are more likely to flourish. That's not to say that prejudice and bad judgment can't exist on a national level, of course, and that brings us to the federal law that classifies marijuana as a controlled substance.

The federal government has an obligation, according to the Constitution, to "promote the general welfare." The regulation of potentially harmful substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, spray paint, insecticides, and marijuana certainly falls within the Constitution's mandate of promoting the general welfare. (The Court's official ruling ties its right to control the use of marijuana to the Constitution's commerce clause--Section 8, Clause 3--which has become a catch-all for claiming federal rights of various sorts.) However, the blanket prohibition on the use of marijuana, even under the supervision of a doctor, is in fact a transgression of the government's mandate, for it inhibits rather than promotes the welfare of those with serious, pain-wracking illnesses and medical conditions. Marijuana should be regulated, particularly to keep it out of the hands of minors, but the states that have passed medical marijuana laws have followed the compassionate course of action by making available a safe, effective course of treatment for those in pain. It is ironic that the Congress that is controlled by a party that bills itself as "compassionate conservative" can show so little compassion for those in need.

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Progressive Theology