Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) is an important episode in struggles between the federal government and states over drug regulations. Angel Raich and Diane Monson grew marijuana plants in their homes and used the drug to alleviate the pain from their severe medical conditions. Their actions were legal under the California Compassionate Use Act, which permitted “seriously ill Californians . . . to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes.” The California statute was inconsistent with the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which banned the production, distribution and possession of marijuana. In 2002, officials from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency came to Monson’s home and destroyed her marijuana plants. Raich and Monson then filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, in the local federal district court. They claimed the federal government had no power to regulate the home cultivation of marijuana that was intended for home use only. The district court denied their motion, but that decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit. Gonzales appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote declared that the federal government under the commerce clause had the power to regulate home-grown marijuana. Justice John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion relied heavily on a past precedent, Wickard v. Filburn (1942). In Wickard, the justices ruled that Congress could regulate home-grown wheat when there was reason to believe that activity might have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Home-grown marijuana was no different. Stevens maintained, “Given the enforcement difficulties that attend distinguishing between marijuana cultivated locally and marijuana grown elsewhere, . . . and concerns about diversion into illicit channels, . . . Congress had a rational basis for believing that failure to regulate the interstate manufacture and possession of marijuana would leave a gaping hole” in federal drug laws.”
Gonzales divided the more conservative justices on the Rehnquist Court who had previously placed federalism limits on commerce clause powers. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy supported federal power. Scalia’s concurring opinion asserted that the federal government had power to regulate purely local activities when doing so was necessary to maintain a scheme designed to regulate interstate markets. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed. They claimed that the private cultivation and use of marijuana was a purely local activity beyond the scope of federal commerce powers. Justice O’Connor’s dissent declared, “The homegrown cultivation and personal possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has no apparent commercial character.”
The judicial division in Gonzales highlights the central role divisions over federalism play in contemporary Supreme Court decision-making. Liberals in the elected branches of the national and state governments are more inclined than conservatives in the elected branches of the national and state governments to support laws legalizing the use of marijuana or at least laws legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. The liberals on the Rehnquist Court were not open to similar appeals. One core principle of contemporary constitutional liberalism is that the federal government has the power to legislate whenever the federal government perceives a national problem, and this power to legislate has no federalism limits. If a more conservative Congress perceived marijuana to be a national problem, liberals on the Supreme Court insisted that constitutional commitments to federalism did not bar legislation.