Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1; 125 S. Ct. 2195; 162 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2005)

Facts—Angel Raich and Diane Monson are California residents who had permission on the state’s Compassionate Use Act to use marijuana prescribed by medical doctors for a variety of ailments for which other medications had failed. Federal agents destroyed six cannabis plants that Monson cultivated, and she and Raich (who relied on two caregivers to provide her with the drug) sought to enjoin further federal enforcement of the law against them. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court and issued a preliminary injunction.

Question—Does Congress have power under the commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana that is undertaken in compliance with California law?

Decision—Yes

Reasons—J. Stevens (6–3). Efforts by the national government to regulate marijuana date back to 1937 but were increased after the declaration of a “war on drugs” in 1970 and Congress’s adoption of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, or Controlled Substance Act (CSA). This act created “a closed regulatory system making it unlawful to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess any controlled substance except in a manner authorized by the CSA.” Under this scheme, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug, because of its “high potential for abuse, lack of any accepted medical use, and absence of any accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment.” Raich and Monson question whether this power extends to “the intrastate manufacture and possession of marijuana for medical purposes pursuant to California law.” The court has recognized congressional power to regulate the channels and instrumentalities of commerce and “activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.” Wickard v. Filburn (1942) extended this control to wheat that was grown for home consumption. As in Wickard, Congress has concluded that local use could substantially affect commerce as a whole. Moreover, it is not the Court’s responsibility to decide whether this judgment is correct but only to ascertain “whether a ‘rational basis’ exists for so concluding.”

The CSA was adopted as part of “a comprehensive framework for regulating the production, distribution, and possession” of drugs. The activities at issue are “quintessentially economic,” economic being defined as “the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities.” Medical exemptions “would undermine the orderly enforcement of the entire regulatory scheme.” Under the supremacy clause “state action cannot circumscribe Congress’ plenary commerce power.” Exemptions are likely to “increase the supply of marijuana in the California market,” and will provide opportunities for unscrupulous physicians and others to evade federal law.

J. Scalia, concurring, further emphasized the role of the necessary and proper clause in interpreting federal powers under the commerce clause. He viewed California’s regulations as reasonably adapted to this end, in a matter involving economic activities. Drugs are “fungible commodities,” which need to be regulated as a whole, and federal regulation does not violate state sovereignty.

J. O’Connor, dissenting. The Court needs to enforce limits on the commerce clause “to protect historic spheres of state sovereignty from excessive federal encroachment.” Federalism “promotes innovation” and allows states to serve as laboratories. Under police powers, states have been permitted “to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.” This case is not materially distinguishable from United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000). Granting Congress power to enact such a broad regulatory scheme “is tantamount to removing meaningful limits on the Commerce Clause.” The Court needs “to identify a mode of analysis that allows Congress to regulate more than nothing . . . and less than everything.” Here it can do so by recognizing the distinction between “medical and nonmedical” drug uses. The activities at issue here are neither commercial, nor were the drugs within “the stream of commerce.” Congress asserted a connection between such uses and commerce in general but made no efforts to prove it as it did in the case of Wickard v. Filburn: “There is simply no evidence that homegrown medicinal marijuana users constitute, in the aggregate, a sizable enough class to have a discernable, let alone substantial, impact on the national illicit drug market—or otherwise to threaten the CSA regime.” CSA’s declarations are too vague and are not specific to marijuana and do not take account of the fact that California had adopted an identification card system for qualified patients.

J. Thomas, dissenting. If Congress can regulate intrastate goods that have never been bought or sold, “then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.” As the Founders understood it, “Commerce, or trade, stood in contrast to productive activities like manufacturing and agriculture.” Here the respondents are part of “a distinct and separable subclass (local growers and users of state-authorized, medical marijuana) that does not undermine the CSA’s interstate ban.” Any seepage of medical marijuana into the illicit drug market is likely to have little effect on the market as a whole. Congress is encroaching on state police powers. The “substantial effects” test “is a ‘rootless and malleable standard’ at odds with the constitutional design.” “[T]he majority’s view—that because some of the CSA’s applications are constitutional, they must all be constitutional—undermines its reliance on the substantial effects test.” “The majority’s rush to embrace federal power ‘is especially unfortunate given the importance of showing respect for the sovereign States that comprise our Federal Union.”

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