Court bolsters federal pot laws

The Supreme Court rules U.S. laws supersede city and state ordinances
Tuesday, June 7, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:04 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Columbia’s marijuana ordinances could come under fire from the federal government because of Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana.

In the case Gonzales v. Raich, the court ruled in a 6-3 decision that federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana under any circumstance override laws that states or cities may have passed.

“This decision gives the stamp of approval that the federal government trumps the states on (medical marijuana),” said Rick Hardy, MU political science professor and constitutional law expert.

The decision does not invalidate any of the laws passed by the 10 states or the numerous laws passed by cities. Anyone caught possessing marijuana, however, could be prosecuted under federal jurisdiction.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, said the circumstance of the two ill California women does not invalidate the Controlled Substance Act.

“The Controlled Substances Act is a valid exercise of federal power,” Stevens wrote.

Similar to Missouri state law, a federal conviction of marijuana possession carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, with similar punishments for higher degrees of violation, possession or sale.

However, the federal government does not have a probation program like the states, so any sentence must be fully carried out in a federal prison.

Dan Viets, local attorney and board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the ruling will not affect the ordinance passed last November by Columbia voters.

“The important thing to remember about this decision is it maintains the status quo,” Viets said. “It does not invalidate any medical marijuana laws.”

Proposition 1, which passed by 71 percent in November , does not legalize medical marijuana but reduces the penalty to a $50 fine. The law is similar to Proposition 2, the marijuana decriminalization ordinance which passed by 61 percent and reduces the penalty for general marijuana possession of 35 grams and less.

The decriminalization ordinance has been under scrutiny since it passed. The Columbia Police Officers Association is petitioning to attempt to repeal the ordinance while several members on both sides of the issue are working on a compromise.

Viets said 95 percent or more prosecutions for marijuana are handled by the states. Although there is a risk the federal government can prosecute an individual for violating the law, the risk is very low.

“People who are using marijuana medically are not likely to be targeted for federal prosecution,” Viets said.

Hardy said he was not sure how the ordinance would be affected, but that the state would likely decide how to handle Columbia’s medical marijuana ordinance.

Hardy said the ruling did not come as a surprise. Prior rulings by the court regarding the central issues of federalism and the United States Constitution’s commerce clause, which deals with interstate economic interchanges, set precedent for this case.

“What we are seeing is an erosion of state autonomy,” Hardy said. “In the past, (medical marijuana) would be the issues of state governments. Since the New Deal, we have seen massive growth the federal government compared to the states.”

Hardy also said any decision by the court takes some time to filter through the various governments. It will be up to the Attorneys General of each state to decide how to interpret the ruling.

The Missouri Attorney General’s office said Jay Nixon’s current position on the law has not yet changed since this ruling.

Viets said the court said Congress was able to change the law regarding medical marijuana, and his organization would be working on several U.S. House bills to get a federal law passed protecting medical marijuana.

“I think it really makes it clear that Congress needs to act on this issue,” Viets said.

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