Washington West Coast-style compassionate liberalism ran into the strict conservatism of the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the justices took up California's medical marijuana law for the first time.
The court's conservative justices said they saw no legal basis for giving the drug to people who are seriously ill.
In their comments and questions during the oral argument, they gave every indication they will rule that federal law strictly forbids the distribution of marijuana and that neither California's voters nor other judges are free to make exceptions for those who suffer pain and nausea.
The medical marijuana laws have proven popular with the voters, but not with federal officials. In 1996, 56 percent of California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act. Since then, voters in seven other states most of them in the West have adopted similar laws.
But federal officials insist these state marijuana laws are essentially void and meaningless.
"There is no accepted medical use of marijuana," acting U.S. Solicitor General Barbara Underwood told the justices Wednesday. Regardless of the state laws, there is "no room to distribute marijuana without the approval of the U.S. attorney general," she added.
Two years ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave new hope to advocates of medical marijuana. The court refused to close a cannabis club in Oakland, Calif., and ruled that marijuana may be given to patients for whom it is a "medical necessity."
But U.S. attorneys appealed, setting the stage for Wednesday's argument in the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, siding with the government, sharply criticized the West Coast judges.
"It seems to me the 9th Circuit erred at the point it created this blanket exception to the Controlled Substances Act," she said, referring to the federal drug law.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelman, representing the cannabis club, disagreed with her characterization. "This is a very narrow exception for a very limited number of people," he said. "They are gravely ill, in pain and unable to eat."
But Justice Anthony Kennedy interjected. "It doesn't sound like a very narrow exception," he said. "This is a huge rewriting of the statute."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said federal authorities maintain there is "no known medical use" for marijuana. And Congress has "ruled out the defense you are advocating."
Justice Antonin Scalia was relentless in criticizing the marijuana exception. Justice Clarence Thomas, who sat silently as usual, consistently votes with the conservatives to form a majority.