Gonzales v. Raich

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545 U.S. 1 (2005), argued 29 Nov. 2004, decided 6 June 2005 by vote of 6 to 3; Stevens for the Court; Scalia concurring; O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist and Thomas, dissenting; Thomas dissenting. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, which authorized the limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Two physicians wrote prescriptions for their patients, believing marijuana was the only drug available that would provide effective treatment. However, the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, making its possession and use a crime. Federal and state officials took steps to prevent the two patients from using the drug, and the patients sought injunctive and declaratory relief, raising a variety of constitutional issues. The question before the Supreme Court, however, was a narrow one: Did Congress have the authority, pursuant to the Commerce Clause, to bar the cultivation and use of marijuana otherwise authorized by state law?

The Court has held repeatedly—most recently in United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000)—that Congress may use the commerce power to regulate three classes of activities: (1) channels of interstate commerce, (2) instrumentalities of and persons or things in commerce, and (2) activities that substantially affect commerce. Raich fell within the third category: federal control of purely local activities that, when aggregated, posed the specter of a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce.

(1) channels of interstate commerce, (2) instrumentalities of and persons or things in commerce, and (2) activities that substantially affect commerce.

This doctrine has proved controversial, especially given decisions made at the turn of the twentieth century celebrating state sovereignty and placing limits on federal authority. Both Lopez and Morrison stressed that the commerce power must be assessed in the light of residual state sovereignty and that there is no “general” federal police power. The California measure arguably comported with these understandings. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stressed in her Raich dissent, adherence to these principles seemed to suggest that the Court should both recognize the role of the states as “laboratories of democracy” and affirm their core authority to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens” (p. 42).

The majority disagreed, concluding that “Congress had a rational basis for believing that failure to regulate the intrastate manufacture and possession of marijuana would leaving a gaping hole in the CSA” (p. 22). For them, the question was not whether a specific, purely local, and quite possibly noneconomic activity has an actual, substantial impact on interstate commerce. Rather, it was “whether a ‘rational basis’ exists for so concluding” (p. 22)—a relatively forgiving standard that bars conflicting state actions, given the continuing force of the Court's preemption doctrines. Raich also preserves the substantial effects doctrine in the face of the argument that commerce is limited to trade or exchange among the states.

Mark R. Killenbeck

Subjects: Law.

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