The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in a legal case with far-reaching implications for the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
At the moment, 11 U.S. states allow chronically ill people to smoke marijuana to help relieve pain.
Among them is California, where Angel Raich grows her own marijuana to cope with the pain from a brain tumor and other diseases.
She spoke to reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court, saying "if it was not for cannabis, I would not be here today and talking to you and fighting for my rights. And I feel very strongly that the justices should think very hard about the facts before them because if they decide that I have the right to live then I will be able to spend the rest of my life with my family. On the other hand, if they side against me, it means that they would be giving me a death sentence."
At issue in the case is whether federal anti-drug laws that prohibit the cultivation and use of marijuana should take precedence over state laws that allow it.
Supporters of medical marijuana have been joined by some conservatives who argue that the federal government should not have the power to overrule state laws.
Opponents of medical marijuana, including the Bush administration, dispute the medical benefits of the drug and argue that any legalization of marijuana will complicate national efforts to fight drug addition.
David Evans is founder of a group called the Drug Free Schools Coalition. "What they are trying to do is to put a good name on marijuana by [making the case that this] is medical. I go to schools, I talk to kids and this gets parroted back to me," he says. "They say, Mr. Evans, what is wrong with marijuana? It is a medicine. Why can't we use it?"
Three years ago, the Supreme Court dealt supporters of medical marijuana a legal setback by ruling that medical use of the drug does not exempt it from federal drug laws.
The high court is expected to issue a ruling in this case sometime before July.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist was again absent from Monday's oral arguments. He is being treated for thyroid cancer and his lengthy absence from the court is fueling speculation about a possible vacancy on the Supreme Court, something that has not happened in more than ten years.
In the event of a retirement or vacancy on the high court, President Bush would nominate a replacement that would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Given Washington's polarized politics, a Supreme Court vacancy could spark a divisive nomination battle in the Senate.
Allan Lichtman is a presidential historian at the American University in Washington. He was a recent guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program. "Your legacy extends decades when you make Supreme Court appointments. And you know that the conservatives, who are the dominant force within the Republican Party, will be pressing for a very conservative nominee. The Democrats will be saying reach out [and appoint a moderate]. You cannot hide [from public scrutiny] with that appointment," he said.
Of the nine current Supreme Court justices, only one, Clarence Thomas, is under the age of 65. A new Associated Press poll found that 60-percent of those surveyed would support the idea of a mandatory retirement age for members of the high court.