Court: Federal Government Cannot Prohibit
Patients’ Use of Medical Marijuana
Yesterday (Dec. 16, 2003), a federal appeals court
ruled that federal drug laws prohibiting the use or cultivation of
marijuana are unconstitutional when applied to medical patients in
California who are using marijuana with their doctor’s approval. The
momentous decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth
Circuit has far reaching implications and can potentially apply to similarly
situated patients in the six other states that allow the use of medical
marijuana within the Ninth Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon
The court held that the cultivation, possession, or use of marijuana for
personal medical purposes cannot be prohibited under federal law so long as
Occurs entirely intrastate (within one state),
Is non-commercial, and
Is on the advice of a physician in accordance with state law.
The decision turns on the limits of Congress’s power to legislate under the
Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Traditionally, the power to police
crimes is reserved to the states. The federal government may regulate only
those activities that have an effect on interstate commerce. Thus, federal
laws that prohibit marijuana and other drugs have been justified on the
ground that these drugs commonly move across state lines and are therefore
in “interstate commerce.”
The Ninth Circuit found the patients’ medical use of marijuana did not touch
on interstate commerce because the marijuana in question was: locally grown;
never sold nor intended for sale; and used on the advice of a doctor in
accordance with California law.
In an earlier decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Congress
can properly regulate conduct occurring entirely within a state if it bears
a substantial relationship to interstate commerce. But the Supreme Court
explicitly left open the question of whether personal use of medical
marijuana bears such a relationship to interstate commerce when it decided
the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club case two years ago.
Legal observers expect the case (Raich
v. Ashcroft) will be appealed to the Supreme Court,
finally allowing the high court to decide the issue.
The CCLE will seek to join the case as an amicus party before the Supreme
The opinion in
Raich v. Ashcroft is available online.