Government Cannot Punish Doctors Who Recommend Medical Marijuana, CA Court Says

September 8, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The American Civil Liberties Union today hailed a federal court ruling saying that federal authorities cannot revoke the licenses of California doctors who recommend the medical use of marijuana to their patients.

“My hope is that this ruling puts an end to threats by the federal government,” said Graham Boyd, a lawyer with the national ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project which along with the ACLU of Northern California and others represents doctors and patients in the class-action lawsuit, Conant v. McCaffrey.

“Physicians have been working in fear and now with this order, doctors and patients can once again freely discuss marijuana without fear of federal punishment.”

In a decision that came late in the day on September 7, U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued a permanent injunction that blocks the government from revoking doctors’ licenses and prohibits the government from initiating investigations of physicians who have provided advice on the medical use of marijuana.

Dr. Milton Estes, an ACLU client in the case, welcomed the ruling. “It is critical that I be able to advise my patients on the medical use of marijuana without fear of being criminally prosecuted or losing my license,” he said. “I work with HIV-infected patients, and it is reassuring to feel that I can now freely speak to my patients.”

Dr. Estes has a private practice in Marin and oversees the care of all HIV-positive inmates in San Francisco County jails.

At issue in the case is the language of Proposition 215, approved by California voters in November 1996, which makes it legal for patients to grow and possess marijuana for medical use when recommended by a doctor.

In response, the Clinton administration said that marijuana is illegal under federal law and pledged to punish doctors who recommend its use.

Despite a temporary injunction issued against such action in 1997, the ACLU said in legal papers, doctors continued to feel threatened about advising patients on medical marijuana because of pronouncements made by White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

“Judge Alsup’s decision allows doctors to get back to doing what we all want our doctors to be able to do: provide patients with their best medical advice without fear of government retaliation,” said Ann Brick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “This ruling protects the free speech rights of doctors and should put an end to any further threats by the government.”

The government has 60 days to appeal the ruling, Brick said.

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