Doctors in some parts of the United States have prescribed marijuana to people suffering from a variety of medical conditions; from glaucoma patients to cancer victims undergoing painful chemotherapy. Though it is used for medicinal purposes in many parts of the world, marijuana remains illegal in most countries.
Eleven U.S. states currently allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The issue was also voted on in three states in the November election. It won passage in the northern state of Montana. But voters in the western state of Oregon turned down an initiative for strengthening an existing law that currently allows medicinal marijuana use. And an initiative for outright legalization failed in Alaska.
The case before the Supreme Court, Raich et. al. vs. Ashcroft, stems from a California
woman's appeal of her conviction under a federal narcotics law - the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 - that prohibits the distribution and sale of marijuana and other illegal drugs across state lines. She and her co-defendants contend their home-grown plants were not being sold to people in other states and are therefore not in violation of the federal law regulating "commerce among the states."
Steph Shere is the executive director of the advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access. She says the federal law should not be enforced, especially in the more than eleven states, including California, that protect medical marijuana users from being prosecuted for drug trafficking:
"The argument can be made for a patient who's living in California that's growing their own medicine, there's no interstate commerce that's happening. So therefore, the federal government does not have the jurisdiction to step in and interfere in these laws."
She says marijuana can be used for relief from a variety of illnesses, including multiple sclerosis.
"Everything from helping chronic pain to being used as an anti-nausea medication. It is also used by M.S. patients to stop tremors and muscle spasticity. Scientists in Israel have found that the cannabinoid in the marijuana plant could actually be the precursor to stopping the on-set of Alzheimer's."
Ms. Schere's claims run counter to the view of U.S. government medical professionals. David Murray, with the National Drug Control Policy office, says marijuana in its dried leaf form - provides no proven medicinal benefits.
"Smoked marijuana has never qualified as an accepted or proved medicine, has never demonstrated, by the standard criteria any new drug would have to go through before being approved, that it is safe to be used and that it is effective."
But Mr. Murray adds that the U.S. government is still evaluating whether the chemical compounds in marijuana might be broken down for their possible medical value.
"Research is going forward to identify cannabinoid active ingredients that can be purified, regulated, standardized and dosed the threatening and risky elements removed and perhaps they could be turned into effective medicines for particular medical conditions. I think those trials are underway and so far, the results are promising but not convincing as yet."
In Britain, the law says cannabis can only be produced, possessed or supplied for research purposes under government license. G.W. Pharmaceuticals is one of the main British companies involved in cannabis drug trials. Company spokesman Mark Rogerson says G.W.'s product; called Sativex is currently awaiting regulatory approval in the United Kingdom.
"Approvals in the U.K. take between 12 and 18 months. That's par for the course if you like. The 18th month milestone was passed a month or so ago. So that's why we hope very much that we're in the final stages."
Mr. Rogerson says the medicine is derived from a whole plant extract, meaning it contains the two main ingredients of marijuana. It is administered as a mouth spray. If it is accepted in Britain, approval for other European countries' markets will likely follow. But he concedes the United States is a difficult and expensive market in which approval for the new drug is less certain.
"We fully recognize that the U.S. is a huge opportunity for us. But at the moment, our thinking is: let's work in areas where the practical barriers to entry are a bit lower, for example, the European Union and the Commonwealth. We'll save the United States for when we're a bit bigger and stronger."
The drug is also awaiting approval in Canada. In the meantime, the government's Health Canada agency says dried marijuana is distributed through legal avenues as a compassionate gesture to sick people. The drug is ordered from a government-funded and controlled cannabis plantation. But Canadian government scientists are still studying this program to make sure that the medical marijuana is both safe and effective.
An Israeli pharmaceutical company, Pharmos, is also testing a variant on the active ingredient in marijuana. The developer was scheduled to complete trials in September and hoped to follow with a U.S. Food & Drug Administration review that is expected to extend into 2006.
Experts are uncertain whether this month's Supreme Court hearing will lay the groundwork for tougher laws against medicinal marijuana use or provide a blueprint for future legal distribution of the drug. In either case, health activists, social policy makers and international drug companies will be awaiting the Court's final ruling with great interest.