Supreme Court hears marijuana suit

WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court took a first look at prescription pot yesterday, hearing arguments on an issue that has pitted the federal government against cancer, AIDS and other patients who sometimes regard marijuana as a wonder drug.

As far as the federal government is concerned, marijuana is illegal and should remain so. Federal enforcement efforts have led to confrontations and arrests in California and other Western states.

The issue for an openly skeptical Supreme Court is whether a patient”s need for marijuana trumps a 1970 federal law that classifies it as an illegal substance with no known medical value.

President Bush supports federal prohibitions on marijuana, but also respects states” rights to pass voter initiatives, as was the case in California, spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

“The president is opposed to the legalization of marijuana, including for medicinal purposes,” he said Yesterday.

Lawyers for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers” Cooperative in California want to make what they call a “medical necessity” defense in federal court, and argue that federal judges and juries have the power to decide if the drug is warranted.

Several justices seemed to think that approach was a stretch at best.

“I thought the medical necessity defense was for an individual,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “You would extend it to the person prescribing the drug, and even to opening a business,” to dispense it.

“That”s a vast expansion beyond any necessity defense I”ve ever heard of,” Scalia said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy seemed to agree.

“You”re asking us to hold that this defense exists with no specific plaintiff before us, no specific case,” Kennedy told the club”s lawyer, Gerald Uelmen.

The court”s ruling is expected by the end of June.

A ruling for the Oakland club would allow special marijuana clubs to resume distributing the drug in California, which passed one of the nation”s first medical marijuana laws in 1996.

A ruling for the federal government would not negate the California voter initiative, but effectively would prevent clubs like Oakland”s from distributing the drug openly.

One of the most vocal opponents of legalized prescription marijuana is Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration”s drug policy director. He once dismissed the practice as “Cheech and Chong medicine,” a reference to the comedy team that celebrated pot-smoking.

Advocates of medical marijuana say the drug can ease side effects from chemotherapy, save nauseated AIDS patients from wasting away or even allow multiple sclerosis sufferers to rise from a wheelchair and walk.

There is no definitive science that the drug works, or works better than conventional, legal alternatives. Nonetheless, nine states have laws allowing the legal use of marijuana to treat a host of ailments.

Scalia challenged Uelmen to list medical emergencies that could require marijuana treatment.

“Death, starvation, blindness,” Uelmen began.

“Stomach ache?” Scalia interrupted with an edge of sarcasm.

Representing the government, Barbara Underwood, a holdover from the Clinton administration Justice Department, said the 1970 Controlled Substances Act “leaves no room for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative” and others to act as “marijuana pharmacies.”

Bush”s choice as chief advocate before the Supreme Court, Theodore Olson, has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Several states are considering medical marijuana laws, and Congress may revisit the issue this year. A measure to counteract laws like California”s died in the House last year.

Activists on both sides gathered outside the court.

The Clinton administration sued to stop distribution by the Oakland group and five other California clubs in 1998.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, sided with the government. All the clubs except the Oakland group eventually closed down, and the Oakland club turned to registering potential marijuana recipients while it awaited a final ruling.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that medical necessity is a legal defense. Charles Breyer followed up by issuing strict guidelines for making that claim.

Stephen Breyer will not participate as the other eight justices consider their ruling. Should the court divide 4-4, the appeals court ruling would stand.

Voters in Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have approved ballot initiatives allowing the use of medical marijuana. In Hawaii, the Legislature passed a similar law and the governor signed it last year.

The case is United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, 00-151.

Senate votes to raise limits on hard money

WASHINGTON

The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to raise the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties, hoping to strike a balance on campaign finance legislation one day after moving to flush millions of dollars out of the nation”s political system.

The 84-16 vote on a hastily crafted compromise cleared the latest but not the last hurdle blocking passage of legislation pressed by Sen. John McCain and his allies to curtail the influence of big money in politics.

“Money is not evil in and of itself,” said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) shortly before the Senate agreed to increase donation limits enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal a quarter-century ago.

Donors would be permitted to give $2,000 a year each to candidates of their choice, and $37,500 overall to candidates and political parties for use in direct campaign expenses. These limits would rise with inflation in the future. The current limits are $1,000 and $25,000.

The compromise called for smaller increases than Thompson originally wanted, but more than Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed in an alternative.

that caused a legislative stand-off and prompted closed-door negotiations in a meeting room a few paces off the Senate floor.

Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the leading Democratic supporter of the bill, emerged to say he would give his support reluctantly to the increases. “We have to make this move,” he said, or else risk the unraveling of a coalition that has been painstakingly put together in nearly two weeks of floor debate.

Even with the compromise, other obstacles remain, including a thorny question of whether the Supreme Court should be directed to consider the measure one provision at a time, or render a verdict on its constitutionality as a whole. Lawmakers on all sides of the bill have raised questions about the constitutionality of a variety of its provisions, and the importance of the issue was reinforced during the day when the Southeastern Legal Foundation announced plans to file suit challenging the bill if it becomes law.

In addition, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has not yet agreed to set a time for a vote on final passage, raising the threat, at least, that he or others might attempt to mount a late filibuster against a measure he has long opposed.

The overall legislation would ban so-called soft money, the unlimited donations that individuals, unions and corporations make to the political parties, and the Senate signaled support for passage of that provision on Tuesday on a vote of 60-40. Together the two parties raised $480 million in such donations in the election cycle that ended last November.

The measure also would place restrictions on political advertising within 60 days of an election, an attempt to rein in “issue ads” by parties and outside groups. These are financed with unlimited contributions and stop barely short of advocating the election or defeat of named candidates.

As drafted, the legislation would make little change in the hard money limits enacted in 1974, and supporters of the bill expressed elation at having finessed a major obstacle in the path of final passage.

While the vote to uphold the ban on soft money was a landmark in the debate over campaign finance legislation, supporters recognized from the beginning they would have to accept some increase in the donations that flow to individual candidates.

Thompson proposed allowing a donor to give up to $2,500 a year to a candidate, up from the current “hard money” limit of $1,000 set in 1974. His proposal would also double the total a person could contribute for political activities in a year to $50,000.

“This is moderate and reasonable in light of what”s going on out there,” he said.

Thompson noted it now takes about $7 million to run a campaign for the Senate, up from about $600,000 when the current restrictions were put into place.

Critics said his limits were too high, particularly Democrats who argued they would fail to lead to fundamental reform in the campaign system. Some party leaders also said Republicans would reap a political windfall if the amendment were agreed to, since the GOP raises more money than Democrats in the hard money chase.

“It would be a great tragedy in our view to finally close the door on soft money and then open up the barn door on the other side to a flood of hard money,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

The debate over the limits underscored the complexity of holding together a fragile coalition behind the overall bill.

Thompson has long supported McCain and Feingold in their effort to pass legislation one of a few Republican senators to do so.

But his decision to seek larger direct contributions than most supporters want has complicated efforts to steer the legislation to passage.

In two test votes early in the day, opponents of Thompson failed to kill his proposal, 54-46. A short while later, Feinstein”s amendment survived on an identical test vote.

That set the stage for more than an hour of backroom negotiations.

Bush order bans aid to family planning

WASHINGTON

Without fanfare or public notice, President Bush yesterday signed a special memorandum barring U.S. foreign aid to family planning groups involved in abortion.

“It”s been done. It will be in the Federal Register tomorrow,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The action, which the White House foreshadowed late last Friday, was designed to quietly pre-empt abortion-rights proponents in Congress who hoped to overturn Bush”s policy of denying U.S. aid to family planning groups that also do abortion counseling and lobbying with their own private funds.

“President Bush has responded by taking procedural steps aimed at stopping Congress from even voting on this issue,” said Amy Coen, president of Population Action International. “It is patently undemocratic and calls into question his stated desire to work with Congress.”

Congress hears from cloning advocate

WASHINGTON

A star-shaped pendant around his neck, his hair gathered atop his head in a bun, the white-suited leader of a Canadian religious group told lawmakers yesterday that they should no more block his plans to clone human beings than they would stop the development of antibiotics, blood transfusions, vaccines and other medical advances.

But shortly after hearing from the witness, the self-styled Rael, who says cloning is a mandate conveyed to him by an extraterrestrial he met in 1973, several leading House members said they intended to pass a law this year to ban cloning as a means of reproduction. President Bush has said he also supports a ban on cloning and will work with Congress to pass one.

Rael, a French former journalist born as Claude Vorilhon, claims he has funding and a list of 100 women who will help him clone a human.

His scientific adviser, chemist Brigitte Boisselier, told aHouse panel that a private company affiliated with Rael”s group had hired four researchers and had begun experiments using cow cells at an undisclosed U.S. location.

Another scientist, fertility specialist Panos Michael Zavos, founder and director of the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Ky., told lawmakers that he and an international team also intended to clone people who could not have children by other means.

Four years after the birth of Dolly, the famous sheep and the first cloned mammal, cloning routinely produces cows, goats and mice with serious defects in their lungs, joints, hearts and immune systems. Three medical researchers told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that the same defects would arise if someone tried to clone humans.

“I don”t believe there is a single normal clone in existence. All clones have some defect,” said Rudolph Jaenisch, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It is unclear whether Rael and Zavos truly have the expertise and funding to try cloning. But federal officials view their claims with some measure of concern. The Food and Drug Administration this week warned Rael”s group that anyone trying cloning must apply for agency permission, and Zavos said FDA officials appeared in person at his Louisville office on Tuesday to deliver a letter, which he had not yet read.

And lawmakers, after hearing from Zavos and Rael, on Wednesday said Congress should pass a federal ban on cloning to produce children. No such ban exists now, though prohibitions are on the books in four states and in 26 other nations.

“The groups we heard from today were serious enough for us to move forward to ban human cloning,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the Energy and Commerce Committee. He said the bill would be introduced by Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., and “moved through committee” by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), its chairman.

At the White House, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “The president believes that the moral and ethical issues posed by human cloning are profound and cannot be ignored. The president believes that any attempt to clone a human being would present a grave risk to both the mother and the child. He opposes it on moral grounds.”

Cloning is a method for producing a genetic copy of an individual. The technique involves removing DNA from an egg cell and replacing it with DNA from an adult. When the process is successful, the egg cell divides and grows into an embryo that has the same genes as the adult. The embryo is transferred to a surrogate mother and carried to term.

Tauzin said a federal law is needed because the FDA, in his view, did not truly have authority to ban cloning, even on grounds that it is unsafe.

However, crafting a cloning ban will be tricky, several witnesses said. To begin with, they said, lawmakers will have to reckon with Supreme Court and federal court rulings, which held that Americans have a constitutional right to have biological children and to make reproductive decisions without government interference.

Moreover, some question whether lawmakers can bar cloning as a reproductive technique while sidestepping the contentious issue of whether it can be used as a medical tool. Some researchers envision a day that patients who need new heart tissue, brain cells or blood cells might be cloned to produce embryos, which would be dissected for cells that could be grown into new tissues for the patient

Children beaten in church sessions

ATLANTA

A judge put 41 children in foster care for a year yesterday after their parents refused to stop whipping them in church-sponsored beating sessions and forcing teen-age girls to marry.

“I hate to see these children jeopardized by what I consider to be a cult,” Juvenile Court Judge Sanford Jones said.

The decision followed a two-day hearing into practices at the House of Prayer, led by the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr.

The judge was told about a 7-year-old left with welts and bruises and a 10-year-old with open wounds on his belly and side. A former church member also testified that she was forced to marry at 15 and was beaten when she refused to have sex with her 23-year-old husband.

Allen has said the beatings are simple discipline.

“The Bible says that if you spare the rod you”re going to spoil the child,” he said last week.

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