Angel Raich tried dozens of prescription medicines to ease the pain of a brain tumor and other illnesses before she took up another drug: pot.
The 39-year-old mother of two has the support of her doctor and a California medical marijuana law when she uses a blend of a marijuana variety known as "Haze X" every few hours.
Dozens of people camped out outside the U.S. Supreme Court, some with blankets, to hear justices debate today whether that's enough to protect Raich from the federal government, which makes no exceptions for the seriously ill in its war on drugs.
Groups such as the Drug Free America Foundation fear a government loss in this case will undermine campaigns against addictive drugs.
Supporters of Raich and another ill woman who filed a lawsuit after her home was raided by federal agents argue that people with the AIDS virus, cancer and other diseases should be able to grow and use marijuana.
Besides California, nine other states allow people to use marijuana if their doctors agree: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona also has a law permitting marijuana prescriptions but has no active program.
After hearing the arguments, the Supreme Court will consider whether the federal law that bans marijuana possession can be enforced in those states.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had ruled against the government in a divided opinion that found federal prosecution of medical marijuana users is unconstitutional if the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.
Lawyers for Raich and Diane Monson contend the government has no justification for pursuing ill small-scale users. Raich, an Oakland, Calif., mother of two teenagers, has scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea and other illnesses. Monson, a 47-year-old accountant who lives near Oroville, Calif., has degenerative spine disease and grows her own marijuana plants in her backyard.
"The federal government has no compelling interest in condemning Angel Raich and Diane Monson to avoidable suffering and even death," their lawyers told justices in a court filing.
The Bush administration argues that Congress has found no accepted medical use of marijuana and needs to be able to eradicate drug trafficking and its social harms.
The Supreme Court ruled three years ago that the government could prosecute distributors of medical marijuana despite their claim that the activity was protected by "medical necessity."
Dozens of groups have weighed in on the latest case, which deals with users and is much more sweeping.
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, conservative states that do not have medical marijuana laws, sided with the marijuana users on grounds that the federal government was trying to butt into state business of providing "for the health, safety, welfare and morals of their citizens."
Some Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, urged the court to consider that more than 20,000 people die each year because of drug abuse. A ruling against the government, they said, would help drug traffickers avoid arrest, increase the marijuana supply and send a message that illegal drugs are good.
California's 1996 medical marijuana law allows people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation.
Medical marijuana was an issue in the November elections. Montana voters easily approved a law that shields patients, their doctors and caregivers from arrest and prosecution for medical marijuana. But Oregon rejected a measure that would have dramatically expanded its existing medical marijuana program.
The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, 03-1454.