Anniversary of Gonzales v. Raich

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the decision in Gonzales v. Raich, a decision whose repercussions still resonate across the legal marijuana market. Following precedent, the Supreme Court held that the Commerce Clause[1] of the Constitution allowed for the federal government to criminalize the private cultivation of marijuana, even if that cultivation was in compliance with state law.


The Case
The facts of the case demonstrate federalism at work. In 1996, California ratified proposition 215 otherwise known as “The Compassionate Use act of 1996”. This act legalized the use, sale and cultivation of medical marijuana with a recommendation from a doctor. California had become the third state to legalize medical marijuana, and the first to legalize it via referendum.

On August 15th, 2002 local sheriffs of Butte county California, under the direction of agents of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agencies (DEA), raided the home of Angel Raich. Angel Raich was a car crash survivor who suffered severe damage to her spine; due to opioid allergies, Ms. Raich used marijuana. Her six plants were destroyed by the officers.

Ms. Raich’s Argument
Ms. Raich brought suit in the 9th Northern District Circuit for injunctive relief to prevent further raids, and declaratory relief claiming that “The Controlled Substances act of 1970” (CSA) as applied to her violated the Constitution. Specifically, she argued that enforcing the federal law, in a state that had legalized the cultivation of marijuana would violate the Due Process Clause[2], Commerce Clause, 5th amendment[3], 9th amendment[4], 10th amendment[5], and the common law doctrine of medical necessity.

After initially losing at the district level, Ms. Raich prevailed at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with the granting of a temporary injunction. After receiving certiorari, the case was taken up by the Supreme Court and argued November 29th, 2004.

The Governments Argument
The Government argued that the CSA did not recognize any medical use of marijuana and therefore the doctrine of medical necessity was inapplicable. Further the Federal Government  argued that due to the Supremacy Clause[6], the Federal law pre-emitted the state law. Finally, the Federal Government argued that following the president of Wickard v. Filburn[7], The Commerce Clause allowed the Federal Government to regulate/criminalize the private cultivation of marijuana even if that marijuana did not enter interstate commerce.

The Supreme Court, in a 6 – 3 decision ruled for the Federal Government. The majority reversed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals preliminary injunction, and upheld the constitutionality of the CSA. The majority held that the Supremacy Clause did in fact allow the federal government to enforce federal drug laws in states that had legalized the use of those drugs. Further the Supreme Court reaffirmed the interpretation of the Commerce Clause set forth in Wikard.

With this ruling, the looming shadow of federal law enforcement was established which still stalks the legal marijuana market across the nation.

The Legacy Wickard v. Filburn, and The Need for Federal Reform
The majorities reliance on the Commerce Clause interpretation established in Wickard, highlights the urgent need for federal marijuana law reform. Wickard came about from a 1940’s case of a Ohio farmer named Roscoe Filburn who had grown excess wheat in violation of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938[8]. In that case The Supreme Court broadened its definition of what was considered Interstate commerce. The Supreme Court established a new test which is still used to determine the constitutionality of federal regulations. This test became known as the “Aggregate Impact Test” This test effectively allowed the government to regulate any kind of commercial or economic activity if the government could show that the economic activity would have an aggregate impact on the interstate market if you multiplied that economic activity by all of those who are doing it.

In that landmark case, the Federal Government was essentially given the power to regulate any economic activity, even if that active it was only for private use or consumption, and did not enter into the interstate market.

The legacy of Wickard is still felt today, most recently being upheld with the decision of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius[9]; the case that upheld The Affordable Care Act or “ObamaCare”. With Wikard being the reality of federal regulatory power, more must be done to seek federal marijuana reform.

No matter how much work is done on the state level to reform marijuana laws, federal law still holds supreme. Until Congress takes action to reschedule, or deschedule marijuana from the CSA, the threat of federal force will always loom over the states.

Written by Hunter White

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[1] USCS Const. Art. I, § 8, Cl 3

[2] USCS Const. Amend. 14

[3] USCS Const. Amend. 5

[4] USCS Const. Amend. 9

[5] USCS Const. Amend. 10

[6] USCS Const. Art. VI, Cl 2

[7] Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111, 63 S. Ct. 82 (1942)

[8] 7 U.S.C.S. § 1281 (LexisNexis, Lexis Advance through PL 114-189, approved 7/6/16)

[9] Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012)