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SAN FRANCISCO - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether the federal government can prosecute sick people who smoke marijuana on the advice of a doctor.

The case involves the Bush administration's appeal of a case it lost last year involving two California women who say pot is the only drug that eases their chronic pain and other medical problems.

The case also affects Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state, which have medical marijuana laws similar to California's allowing patients to grow, use or receive marijuana if they have a doctor's recommendation. Thirty-five states in all have passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value.

Patients' rights groups immediately hailed the high court's decision to hear the case.

”The Supreme Court has a chance to protect the rights of patients everywhere who need medical cannabis to treat their afflictions,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access.

The high court will take up the case sometime next winter.

Doctors are already free to recommend marijuana since the justices refused last fall to let the Justice Department punish physicians for discussing marijuana with their patients.

The case the Supreme Court accepted Monday began after several raids on California medical-marijuana clubs and individual growers over the past few years.

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