Local sheriff's deputies and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
agents disagreed when they converged on Diane Monson's house
in Oroville, Calif., two years ago.
The county cops accepted Monson's explanation for growing
six marijuana plants: She had a doctor's permission to smoke
it for back pain, so the pot was legal under the state's 1996
"medical marijuana" law.
But the DEA agents insisted that growing marijuana is still
against federal law. They seized the plants and destroyed
Today that federal-state clash continues at the Supreme Court,
where the justices will hear oral arguments on whether the
Constitution permits the federal government to take action
against those who use homegrown marijuana for medicinal reasons
within states where it is legal to do so.
The case is the third medical pot case to reach the Supreme
Court since voters overwhelmingly approved California's Compassionate
Use Act. But the legal issues this time give the case importance
well beyond the 11 states, mostly in the West, that since
1996 have eased or eliminated penalties for medical use of
Among these states is Maryland, which last year set a maximum
fine of $100 for medical users of less than an ounce of pot.
It has wider implications because Monson claims that federal
drug busts of people such as her exceed Washington's authority
under the commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives
Congress the power to regulate trade "among the several
Last year, the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for
the 9th Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that Monson was right. If the
Supreme Court agrees, it could limit the federal government's
power over not just the cultivation and use of marijuana,
but also other activities.
Much modern government regulation exists because the Supreme
Court articulated a broad definition of interstate commerce
during the 20th century. This permitted the court to uphold,
as exercises of Congress's commerce clause power, a wide range
of national laws -- from the economic policies of the New
Deal to the civil rights era ban on racial segregation in
hotels and restaurants.
Perhaps the key ruling came in 1942, when the court held that
the Roosevelt administration could enforce acreage controls
against an Ohio wheat farmer who claimed his crop was entirely
for his own use.
The court said that even subsistence farming could change
the overall supply and price of grain; this "substantial
effect on interstate commerce" triggered Congress's authority.
But in more recent years, the court has tightened its definition
of interstate commerce.
In 1995, the court struck down a federal ban on gun possession
within 1,000 feet of a school, ruling that Congress's claims
that school gun violence had a "substantial effect"
on the economy were implausible.
And in 2000, the court struck down a federal law giving women
a right to sue rapists in federal court, ruling that such
violence was not, "in any sense of the phrase, economic
Monson and her co-plaintiffs -- Angel McClary Raich, an Oakland
woman who suffers from a variety of painful chronic disorders,
and two people identified as John Doe One and John Doe Two,
who give Raich pot free of charge -- argue that these recent
cases favor them, because using small amounts of marijuana
they grow for themselves, or passing it along for "compassionate"
reasons, cannot affect the broader market for the drug.
"This case is and always has been about federalism and
state sovereignty," Monson's lawyers argue in their brief.
But the Bush administration counters that even small-scale
use of a fungible commodity such as marijuana can affect price
and quantity in the black market.
"[E]xcepting drug activity for personal use or free distribution
from the sweep of [federal drug laws] would discourage the
consumption of lawful controlled substances and would undermine
Congress's intent to regulate the drug market comprehensively
to protect public health and safety," the administration
argues in its brief.
The federalism issue in the case has created unusual alliances.
Three conservative Deep South states, Alabama, Louisiana and
Mississippi, have filed a friend of the court brief supporting
the marijuana users on states' rights grounds. "California
is entitled to make for itself the tough policy choices that
affect its citizens," the states' brief argues.
Legal analysts say the likeliest supporter on the court for
the marijuana users may also be its most conservative member:
Justice Clarence Thomas, who, though a harsh critic of drug
abuse, has also written that the court must narrowly define
Congress's commerce clause powers.
Meanwhile, a liberal environmentalist group, the Community
Rights Council, filed a brief in support of the Bush administration,
noting the group's interest in "ensuring . . . legislative
flexibility to address national concerns."
In two previous cases at the Supreme Court, medical marijuana
advocates have a split record.
In 2001, the court ruled 8 to 0 that there is no "medical
necessity" exception to federal drug laws against producing
and distributing marijuana, so California's "cannabis
clubs" cannot escape prosecution by saying they save
But in 2003, the court refused to hear the Bush administration's
appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling that said doctors have a right
to discuss marijuana as a treatment option with their patients.
That left the 9th Circuit ruling on the books.
Thus, today's case is critical to the medical marijuana movement.
With cannabis clubs unable to distribute pot legally, a doctor's
right to recommend it would be meaningless unless users or
their friends can grow it themselves.
The case is Ashcroft v. Raich, No. 03-1454. A decision
is expected by July.