During the last decade, California and a number of other states, including Maryland, have passed laws legalizing or otherwise protecting the use of marijuana for medical purposes. These laws fly in the face of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, making its manufacture, distribution or possession a criminal offense.
Nevertheless, medical marijuana advocates have asserted that the regulation of marijuana, locally grown and consumed pursuant to a physician's order, should fall outside the purview of the federal government's regulatory powers.
This dispute made its way to the United States Supreme Court in the cases of Angel Raich and Diane Monson, two California residents who used marijuana for medical purposes with their physician's recommendation in conformity with California's "Compassionate Use Act." Monson cultivated her own plants, and Raich, who was unable to do so, relied on two caregivers who grew the plants and provided her with the locally grown marijuana free of charge.
Despite her compliance with California law, federal agents seized and destroyed all six of Monson's cannabis plants. Following the action by the federal agents, Monson and Raich sued U. S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the head of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and sought and obtained injunctive relief prohibiting the DEA from enforcing the CSA against California residents who were abiding by California law.
A. Gonzales v. Raich
On June 6, 2005, the Supreme Court decided Gonzales v. Raich. The decision turned on the settled constitutional principle that Congress has authority to regulate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. The Court said that it is within Congress' commerce power to regulate even the home consumption of locally produced commodities where such consumption could have a substantial effect on the national demand for a product.
The Supreme Court reasoned that it was likely that the high demand for marijuana in the interstate market would likely draw medical marijuana into interstate commerce. The Court further found that Congress could rationally conclude that the impact on the market could be substantial when all the transactions in the states where the use of medical marijuana is permitted are taken into account.
The fact that the marijuana was used for personal medical purposes on the advice of a physician was held insufficient grounds to differentiate this case from other cases in which the Court has affirmed the federal government's use of its power to control activities that might affect interstate commerce.
Accordingly, the Court rejected Monson's and Raich's request to allow California law to shield Californians from federal enforcement of the CSA, and overturned the previously entered injunction against the federal action.
B. Maryland's Marijuana Law
Maryland's law regarding medical marijuana, passed in 2003, differs from the statutes in other states that permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Maryland's legislation does not legalize the use or growing of medical marijuana by patients or caregivers; doing so is still illegal under Maryland law. However, Maryland law requires a Maryland court to consider a patient's use of marijuana for medical reasons to be a mitigating factor in a marijuana possession case. If a patient can successfully convince a court that his or her use of marijuana is a medical necessity, the maximum penalty that a Maryland state court may impose is a $100 fine.
The decision in Gonzales v. Raich leaves the validity of state laws protecting medical marijuana undecided. The Supreme Court only addressed the question of whether it had grounds to overturn the lower court's injunction prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the CSA against individuals who were acting in compliance with the California law. The legality of the underlying California statute was not at issue.
Accordingly, state medical marijuana laws, like those in California and Maryland, may continue to insulate marijuana users from state, as opposed to federal, prosecution. However, the states are now powerless to protect growers, distributors and users of medical marijuana from federal prosecution.
It remains to be seen whether federal drug enforcement authorities will use the decision as a catalyst for cracking down on medical marijuana use, or whether the California raid will be an isolated situation. The Court was not unsympathetic to what it termed the "troubling facts of this case," and noted that the voices of medical marijuana supporters might "one day be heard in the halls of Congress." Unless or until Congress acts, however, the current uneasy balance between state tolerance and federal power will be the rule.