The administration, which has taken a hard stand against state medical marijuana laws, asked the high court to strike down an appeals court ruling that blocked the punishment, or investigation, of physicians who tell patients they may be helped by the drug.
The administration's appeal, filed this week, gives the Supreme Court a chance to revisit the subject of legalized marijuana. Two years ago, the court ruled that there is no exception in federal drug laws for people to use pot to ease pain from cancer, AIDS or other illnesses. That case also involved a ruling of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson said the latest 9th Circuit decision keeps the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from protecting the public. He said the ruling licenses doctors to treat patients with illegal drugs and that physicians who urge patients to use pot are no different than those recommending heroin or LSD.
Medical marijuana laws are on the books in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
At issue is a policy, put in place during the Clinton administration, that requires the revocation of federal prescription licenses of doctors who recommend marijuana.
The appeals court said that the policy interferes with free-speech rights of doctors and patients. Physicians should be able to speak candidly with patients without fear of government sanctions, the court said, but they can be punished if they actually help patients obtain the drug.
Graham Boyd, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing patients, doctors, and other groups, said a government victory at the high court would gut the medical marijuana laws and hurt doctor-patient relationships.
"This case is about doctors providing honest and accurate medical advice to patients and the government wanting to censor that advice and leave patients to the Internet, their friends and back alley information in order to make medical decisions," Boyd said Friday.
Justices will likely decide this fall whether to review the case.