Washington — The Supreme Court entered the debate on medical marijuana Monday, agreeing to decide whether the drug can be provided to patients out of "medical necessity" even though federal law makes its distribution a crime.
The justices said they will hear the Clinton administration's effort to bar a California group from providing the drug to seriously ill patients for pain and nausea relief.
A lower court decision allowing the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative to distribute the drug "threatens the government's ability to enforce the federal drug laws," government lawyers said.
But the California group says that for some patients, marijuana is "the only medicine that has proven effective in relieving their conditions or symptoms."
The group's lawyer, Annette P. Carnegie, said Monday the federal Controlled Substances Act does not prohibit the distribution of marijuana for medical reasons.
"Those choices, we believe, are best made by physicians and not by the government," she said.
In August, the Supreme Court barred the California organization from distributing marijuana while the government pursued its appeal.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not participate in the case. His brother, a federal trial judge in San Francisco, previously barred distribution of marijuana only to have his decision reversed by a federal appeals court.
California's 1996 law authorizes the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes upon a doctor's recommendation.
The Oakland group said its goal is "to provide seriously ill patients with safe access to necessary medicine so that these individuals do not have to resort to the streets."
But the federal Controlled Substances Act includes marijuana among the drugs whose manufacture and distribution are illegal.
In 1998, the federal government asked a judge to ban the Oakland group from providing marijuana.
Judge Charles Breyer issued a preliminary order imposing such a ban. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, and last May, Breyer issued a new order allowing the Oakland group to provide marijuana to patients who needed it.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Justice Department lawyers said the appeals court "seriously erred" in deciding federal law allowed a medical-necessity defense.