Federal disability law cannot be used to prevent cities from closing medical marijuana dispensaries, a U.S. appeals court ruled in San Francisco yesterday.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a 2-1 vote rejected an effort by four seriously disabled people to invoke anti-discrimination provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to secure medical marijuana to alleviate severe pain.
"We recognize that the plaintiffs are gravely ill," Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher wrote. But "Congress has made clear...that federal law does not authorize plaintiffs' medical marijuana use."
California's voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows seriously ill patients to use cannabis with a doctor's approval. But federal laws prohibiting the use of the drug supersede the state statute.
In the case before the 9th Circuit, four Orange County residents sought to sue the cities of Costa Mesa and Lake Forest under the Americans with Disabilities Act for discriminating against them by closing down local marijuana dispensaries. They based their claim on a provision of the ADA that says the disabled are covered by the anti-discrimination provisions of the law when they use an illegal drug under the supervision of a licensed health care professional.
But the appeals court majority said such an exception would apply only to uses specifically authorized under the federal Controlled Substances Act, such as an experimental test of a drug, and not to the use of cannabis.
The ruling reverberated in Berkeley, where in April federal pressure forced the closure of a San Pablo Avenue dispensary for its proximity to two schools after 13 years in business. It was not immediately clear how Monday's ruling might affect the 9,000-member Berkeley Patients Group's efforts to relocate.
Previous attempts by patients and medical marijuana advocates to seek an exception to the federal laws have failed. In 2001, in a case concerning the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the doctrine of medical necessity as a defense against the federal laws. In 2005, the high court turned down Oakland patient Angel Raich's argument that locally grown, noncommercial marijuana was beyond the reach of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. More recently, lawsuits challenging a crackdown on large-scale marijuana dispensaries by federal prosecutors in California have proved unsuccessful.
Matthew Pappas, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients are disappointed and may appeal to an 11-judge panel of the circuit court.
"At the end of the day, no state, county or city can enact an ordinance that conflicts with federal law," said Jeffrey Dunn, a lawyer for Lake Forest. "It's all about being consistent with federal law."
-- By Rebecca Rosen Lum with Bay City News Service