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Court Ruling a Blow to Marijuana Legalization Movement


Advocates of medical marijuana are not backing down after yesterday's Supreme Court decision. That decision allows federal authorities to prosecute patients who smoke pot. Twelve states, most of them in the West, have laws on the books that are sympathetic to medical marijuana use. And while many advocates say their movement has suffered a setback, few believe that federal authorities will now go after individual patients. There is concern, though, that the government will step up its campaign against the people who supply marijuana to sick patients. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.


The San Francisco Patients' Cooperative is a small storefront in the heart of the city. The volunteer staff here are also patients. The room reeks of marijuana as they settle in for a collective smoke. About 80 people come in each day to obtain the drug they say is vital to their lives. The cooperative's co-founder is Reverend RandeLyn Webster. She's a small woman with a wreath of plastic marijuana leaves on her head. She says the Supreme Court's decision, in her words, `changes nothing.'

Reverend RANDELYN WEBSTER (Co-founder, San Francisco Patients' Cooperative): Well, everyplace who's owned and operated one of these facilities, all the patients, anybody who cares for them, anybody involved in the medical cannabis question, has always been walking around with a target on their head. All it does is it makes us continue to be aware and alert, continue to care for our patients and continue to work with our local officials.

GONZALES: That includes local police, who keep their hands off this operation. There are a number of marijuana co-ops across the nation, the majority in California, home to at least 120. It's difficult to know how many exist in other states because many are underground. That's led to an uneasy standoff between local and state officials and the federal government. The state wants to control these operations, and federal authorities seek to shut them down. After yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, California state Attorney General Bill Lockyer acknowledged that that basic conflict remains.

Mr. BILL LOCKYER (Attorney General, California): The federal statute treats heroin and marijuana as similarly dangerous without health benefits. That's wrong. Sixty years ago, during the era of reefer madness, these laws were written in ways that don't distinguish and don't allow for the benefits that AIDS patients and other terminally ill and--might receive from use of medical marijuana.

GONZALES: Lockyer says he stands by his belief that, quote, "taking medicine on the recommendation of a doctor for a legitimate illness is not a crime."

In Montana, the attorney general, Mike McGrath, says he also continues to support his state's medical marijuana law passed by voters last year. And if federal authorities try to prosecute patients registered under the state law, McGrath says the feds, quote, "will be on their own."

In contrast, officials in Oregon are taking a more conservative approach. There are more than 10,000 patients registered with the state to receive marijuana, but the state has temporarily stopped issuing medical marijuana registration cards for new patients pending a legal review by the attorney general.

A spokesman and agent for the DEA in Washington, Bill Grant, says his agency's focus remains on major trafficking operations.

Mr. BILL GRANT (Spokesman, DEA): Our mission is not going to change. We have never targeted the sick and dying, but, rather, you know, the criminals engaging in drug cultivation and trafficking.

GONZALES: A survey by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates medical marijuana, confirms that. Daniel Abrahamson is the group's legal affairs director in Oakland.

Mr. DANIEL ABRAHAMSON (Drug Policy Alliance): The federal government rarely flexes its muscle in the area of medical marijuana. And when it does flex its muscles, it targets people who are growing hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of plants.

GONZALES: However, Abrahamson says there are exceptions to that rule. For example, take the case of Diane Monson. She was taking medical marijuana for back pain and was one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court decision. Federal authorities seized six plants she was growing for her own consumption. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
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