The U.S. Supreme Court handed medical marijuana patients and advocates a resounding victory on Monday, refusing to hear a case brought by San Diego County, which has long chafed at implementing statewide medical marijuana laws.
The state of California, in an effort to systematize the 1996 voter-approved initiative, required localities to implement identification card programs for patients with doctor approval in 2004. Such ID cards are required to enter medical marijuana shops in California and can be shown to police officers who find patients in possession of marijuana.
San Diego County, however, argued that the federal ban on marijuana trumps the state law, meaning they are not required to follow the state law. The county filed suit in 2006. Both the San Diego Superior Court and the Fourth District Court of Appeals rejected the argument, which was followed by the California Supreme Court's refusal to review the case in 2008.
The San Diego Board of Supervisors voted to appeal to the Supreme Court.
"The courts have made clear that federal law does not preempt California's medical marijuana law and that local officials must comply with that law," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a national medical marijuana advocacy group with a large presence in California. "No longer will local officials be able to hide behind federal law and resist upholding California's medical marijuana law."
It is not the job, in other words, of local cops or municipalities to enforce federal laws. In fact, the federal government has never made such an argument. The California counties acted on their own.
The Supreme Court ruling, following the Obama administration's decision not to raid medical marijuana clubs acting in accordance with state law, removes one of the last barriers to full implementation of the state law.
ASA has now given notice to 10 conservative holdout counties (Colusa, Madera, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, San Bernardino, San Diego, Solano, Stanislaus, and Sutter) of their legal obligation to implement the ID card program. In January 2009, ASA, something of an industry trade group, filed a lawsuit in January against Solano County for its refusal to implement the state ID card program.
ASA was joined by the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project in assisting the California Attorney General in the case against San Diego. San Bernardino teamed with San Diego.
"The Supreme Court and the lower courts in California have blown away the myth that federal law somehow prevents states from legalizing medical marijuana," said Rob Kampia, executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Thirteen states have laws that allow certain folks to use medical marijuana if their doctor recommends it. Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York are currently considering medical marijuana bills in their state legislatures.
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America