A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday ruled that the government cannot revoke doctors' prescription licenses for recommending marijuana to sick patients, including those with AIDS. A three-judge panel of the ninth circuit U.S. court of appeals unanimously ruled that the Justice Department's policy of revoking the licenses interferes with the free-speech rights of doctors and patients. "An integral component of the practice of medicine is the communication between doctor and a patient," said chief circuit judge Mary Schroeder. "Physicians must be able to speak frankly and openly to patients." The court upheld a two-year-old court order prohibiting the government from stripping doctors of their Drug Enforcement Administration licenses, which allow them to prescribed federally controlled substances.
Federal prosecutors argued that doctors who recommend marijuana are interfering with the drug war and violate the government's position that marijuana has no medical benefits. "Doctors who recommend marijuana in the eight states that have medical marijuana laws will make it easier to obtain marijuana in violation of federal law," said government attorney Michael Stern. But the court ruled that recommending marijuana use "does not translate into aiding and abetting or conspiracy," Schroeder said.
The case was brought by patients' rights groups and physicians in California who said that marijuana may help some patients but that doctors in the state have been fearful of recommending it. The lawsuit was an outgrowth of a ballot initiative approved by California voters in 1996 that allows patients to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. That initiative and efforts to get medical marijuana to sick people in the state have been challenged repeatedly by the federal government, which does not allow for any legal use of the drug. Other states with medical marijuana laws include Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.