On May 14, the United States Supreme Court unanimously
reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,
which had created a "necessity defense" for distributing
marijuana. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative was set
up after the passage of an initiative in California which made a
medical use exception to the state's marijuana laws. However,
marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and because Congress
placed it "Schedule I," there is no medical use exception.
The majority opinion by Justice Thomas expresses some doubt whether
courts can ever read a necessity defense into a federal criminal
statute. There is no need to answer that question in the present
case, however, because the schedule system clearly allows medical
prescription for some controlled substances and disallows it for
others, and by placing marijuana on Schedule I Congress has precluded
the courts from making a contrary decision.
Justice Thomas' majority opinion also notes
the federalism implications of allowing Congress to override the
decision of the state's voters. However, the statute is clear.
"Because federal courts interpret, rather than author, the
federal criminal code, we are not at liberty to rewrite it. Nor
are we passing today on a constitutional question, such as whether
the Controlled Substances Act exceeds Congress power under
the Commerce Clause."
Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor,
Scalia, and Kennedy joined the majority opinion. Justice Stevens
wrote a separate concurrence, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg.
Justice Breyer was recused.
This case presented something of a dilemma for
those who believe in both federalism and judicial restraint.
On one hand, Congress is overriding the law of the state on something
that arguably should be a local decision. On the other, the
statute is clear, and, absent a constitutional argument, courts
ought to enforce statutes as written.
Court Opinion (PDF)
Circuit Opinion (HTML)
Solicitor General's Brief (HTML)