Gonzales v. Raich (2005)


Gonzales v. Raich (2005) is a United States Supreme Court case that brought forth the question: Does congress have the power to regulate locally grown marijuana in pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution? The issue arose after the state of California passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. This act conflicted with the federal law banning the possession of marijuana, Controlled substance act.

The Drug enforcement agency, raided and seized, doctor prescribed marijuana from two patients homes, Angel Raich and Diane Monson. A group of medical marijuana users, including Raich and Monson, sued the DEA and the United States Attorney General.

After losing in trial court, Raich and Monson filed a notice of appeal in the Ninth Circuit court. On December 3, 2003 the court of Appeals ruled in favor of Raich and Monson, stating the actions of the federal government were unconstitutional. However, on January 23, 2004 the appellees filed petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc with the ninth circuit court of appeals. The ninth circuit court of Appeals mandated that the case verdict be remanded and reversed.

Relying heavily on two previous court cases, U.S. v. Lopez and U.S. v. Morrison,  the court ruled that congress does possess the authority to regulate locally grown marijuana. This power is found vested in the Commerce clause as it includes the authority to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana in compliance with California law.

Timeline 1



Alberto R. Gonzales and Angel McClary Monson’s, addressed the constitutionality of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as applied to individuals who grow marijuana for personal and medical use under California’s Compassionate Use Act (CUA). The Controlled Substances Act set limitations on the use of drugs, while also stating that certain drugs, when used for medical treatment were appropriate.

  •      “Many of the drugs included within this subchapter have a useful and legitimate medical purpose and are necessary to maintain the health and general welfare of the American people.”
  •      “The illegal importation, manufacture, distribution, and possession and improper use of controlled substances have a substantial and detrimental effect on the health and general welfare of the American people.”


Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents seized and destroyed all six of Monson’s cannabis plants, respondents brought this action seeking injunctive and declaratory relief prohibiting the enforcement of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to the extent it prevents them from possessing, obtaining, or manufacturing cannabis for their personal medical use. Respondents claim that enforcing the CSA against them would violate the Commerce Clause and other constitutional provisions. The District Court denied respondents’ motion for a preliminary injunction, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that they had demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the claim that the CSA is an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority as applied to the intrastate, noncommercial cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal medical purposes as recommended by a patient’s physician pursuant to valid California state law. The court relied heavily on United States v. Lopez, 514 U. S. 549, and United States v. Morrison,529 U. S. 598, to hold that this separate class of purely local activities was beyond the reach of federal power.

Procedural History


     In California 2002 on October 9th, two patients of cannabis medical usage were Angel McClary and Diane Monson also associated were the two doctors John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 filed a complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction again U.S. General Attorney John Ashcroft former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and  Administrator Asa Hutchinson. Both plaintiffs Raich and Monson ask the Judge Martin J. Jenkins to give a preliminary injunction, permanently enjoining the defendant from arresting  and prosecuting the plaintiffs, by seizing their medical marijuana, forfeiting their property, and seeking civil or administrative sanctions against them (Raich 2011).  However, In 1996 California passed a bill legalizing marijuana for medical purposes,it is still yet illegal under federal law.The Butte County Sheriff Dept. destroyed six residents homegrown marijuana plants including Diane Monson.  The marijuana plants were illegal Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substance Act. Then Monson and Angel Raich sued, claiming that enforcing the CSA against them would violate the Commerce Clause, the Fifth Amd. (due process), the Ninth and Tenth Amd, and the doctrine of medical necessity.

     According to the complaint, John Ashcroft and Asa Hutchinson are unconstitutionally exceeding their authority by embarking on a campaign of seizing or forfeiting privately-grown intrastate medical cannabis from California patients and caregivers, arresting or prosecuting such patients, mounting paramilitary raids against patients and caregivers, harassing patients and caregivers, and taking other civil or administrative actions against them (Raich 2011). On December 17, 2002, the court denied the preliminary injunction. Raich and Monson filed a Notice of Appeal to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on March 12, 2003.

     On December 16, 2003, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Raich and Monson due to the federal government actions against them were unconstitutional.  The appellees (John Ashcroft) then filed a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on January 23, 2004, and was denied on February 25, 2004.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its mandate stating, “APPEAL FROM the United States District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco) on March 5, 2004, resulting in the case being remanded and reversed. However on April 20, 2004, the US General Attorney John Ashcroft filed a certiorari to the US Supreme which changed the name of the case Raich v. Ashcroft to Ashcroft v. Raich.  


Can Congress regulate homegrown medical marijuana consumed at home pursuant to the interstate commerce clause? Yes

Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)

Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)


No. In a 6-3 opinion delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court held that the commerce clause gave Congress authority to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana, despite state law to the contrary. Stevens argued that the Court’s precedent “firmly established” Congress’ commerce clause power to regulate purely local activities that are part of a “class of activities” with a substantial effect on interstate (Oyez 2016). 

Majority Opinion (Stevens)

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Souter, and Ginsburg. Holding that congress has the authority to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana in compliance with California law. Justice Stevens states in his opinion,

“The question before us, however, is not whether it is wise to enforce the statute in these circumstances; rather, it is whether Congress’ power to regulate interstate markets for medicinal substances encompasses the portions of those markets that are supplied with drugs produced and consumed locally. Well-settled law controls our answer. The CSA is a valid exercise of federal power, even as applied to the troubling facts of this case. We accordingly vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals.”

Concurring Opinion (Scalia)

Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion due to what he described as a  “nuanced” understanding of the Commerce Clause. Scalia agrees that Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce. However, he believes that the power to regulate activities with a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce cannot be authorized only by the Commerce Clause, but instead by the Necessary and Proper Clause. Scalia made note of the Congressional power determined in U.S. v. Lopez to “enact laws necessary and proper for the regulation of interstate commerce,” whether or not the activity is economic in nature if the laws appeared to be an appropriate means to an end.

Dissenting Opinion (O’Connor)

Justice O’Connor wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Thomas.

We enforce the “outer limits” of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority not for their own sake, but to protect historic spheres of state sovereignty from excessive federal encroachment and thereby to maintain the distribution of power fundamental to our federalist system of government. United States v. Lopez, 514 U. S. 549, 557 (1995); NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U. S. 1, 37 (1937). One of federalism’s chief virtues, of course, is that it promotes innovation by allowing for the possibility that “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

O’Connor states that ‘Relying on Congress’ abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California’s experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case (Wikipedia 2016).

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas)

Justice Thomas wrote a Dissenting opinion. Disagreeing with the majority opinion, Justice Thomas states,

Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything–and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.”

Recognizing that should Congress have the power to regulate intrastate commerce that would possess the power to regulate everything without limitation.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance / Impact

Since the 1970’s, the Supreme Court has primarily taken the medical ethics-based approach and determined that physicians have the power to determine appropriate treatment for patients in cases regarding public health. Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton determined that the right to terminate a pregnancy according to the judgment of a medical professional falls under the right to privacy. However, in Gonzales v. Raich, the Court decided to not defer to the judgment of medical professionals. Doctors in California determined that marijuana would be the most beneficial option for many patients, including the plaintiffs Angel Raich and Diane Monson, who suffered from cancer and chronic pain. Instead of trusting the legitimacy of the treatment plans, the Court ruled in favor of the federal Controlled Substances Act, which declared marijuana as a Schedule I drug without potential for medical use (Annas 2007). According to the Court, the raid of Raich’s home and confiscation of her marijuana plants by Federal DEA agents was not unconstitutional. The case relied heavily on Wickard v. Filburn, which determined that even local activities, such as growing wheat for personal consumption, could have a substantial impact on interstate commerce. Therefore, it was within the reach of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. Relying on this precedent, the Court determined that medical exceptions should not be made, which is where Gonzales v. Raich differs significantly from the public health cases before it.

Many political scholars argue that the ruling in Gonzales v. Raich had a great deal to do with conservative opposition to illicit drug use and very little to do with public health, despite its significant impact on the latter.     In 1970, The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was enacted by Congress in order to regulate and criminalize use of controlled substances, including marijuana. The substances were divided into five categories based on severity, potential medical uses, and side effects. Marijuana became classified as a Schedule I substance, but during the Clinton administration, the Justice Department declared that the Act did not apply to marijuana if a state law permitted medical use exceptions, such as in California. In 1996, California’s Compassionate Use Act was created to allow the severely ill to use medical marijuana as part of a prescribed treatment plan. The Act relied on a substantial amount of medical research that declared that marijuana could alleviate pain and symptoms of diseases such as AIDS and various cancers. This was the first state-level statute permitting medical marijuana use, but it was not seen as a threat to federal law until several years later (Collier 2007). Under the Bush Administration, the Justice Department struck down the exception so that any possession of marijuana, even if legally prescribed by a doctor, would be a criminal offense. According to this federal policy, the Compassionate Use Act became virtually invalid, and federal DEA agents across California actively tried to keep medical marijuana use at bay (Johnston 2009).

Gonzales v. Raich reached the Supreme Court in the last year of the notoriously federalist Rehnquist Court. However, after Gonzales v. Raich, political scholars often question whether the Rehnquist Court was truly a “federalist revival,” or if federalism was just a means for achieving conservative policy (Young 2005). The ruling in Gonzales v. Raich points strongly to the latter. It was expected that conservative Justices Rehnquist, Thomas, and O’Connor would vote with the majority, but dissented instead on federalist grounds. According to one political hypothesis, known as the “attitudinal model,” cases are ruled according to political ideology, not “legal principle” (Young 2005). This is affirmed in Gonzales v. Raich, which ruled against typically conservative principles such as federalism and states’ rights, but still achieved a conservative outcome. Political scholars in favor of federalism often note that the case had “drifted” away from the limited powered delegated to Congress in the Constitution, and that a more originalist interpretation of the Commerce Clause would have determined the regulation of personal marijuana growth for medical use to be outside of Congress’s reach (Young 2005). Instead, the majority opinion in Gonzales v. Raich determined that personal cultivation fell under a relevant “class of activities” that could affect interstate commerce and Scalia’s concurrence noted that Congress could regulate anything “necessary and proper” to regulating interstate commerce as a whole. Although the homegrown marijuana was neither bought nor sold, the Court declared “that the relevant activity was marijuana use in general…while the state regulatory regime sought to carve out a narrow class of purely medicinal, homegrown consumption” (Young 2005). Unlike the outcome of Wickard v. Filburn, which was based on proof that excess wheat would have a substantial effect on the wheat industry, Gonzales v. Raich relied on “speculation” (Ramsey 2012). Here, the case significantly broadened the scope of the Commerce Clause because no proof was necessary in determining that an activity could affect interstate commerce. Also, virtually anything, economic or not, could be regulated if it contributed to a certain class of activities. Federalists such as Justice O’Connor were concerned that the ruling in Gonzales v. Raich would determine the Commerce Clause to be “limitless,” as an argument could be made for Congressional regulation of anything if it could somehow contribute or have the potential to contribute to interstate commerce (Ramsey 2012).

Gonzales v. Raich was not merely a symbolic case, and it had a significant impact on future public policy. One of the most famous and controversial Supreme Court cases, NFIB v. Sebelius, determined that the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act was constitutional under the Taxing and Spending Clause but that coercing states into expanding Medicaid to avoid losing all Medicaid funding was unconstitutional (Oyez 2016). The case relied heavily on the precedent Gonzales v. Raich. Many scholars argue that not using Gonzales v. Raich could have completely changed the outcome of NFIB v. Sebelius. In NFIB v. Sebelius, the political ramifications of Gonzales v. Raich were apparent. It is well known that the Affordable Care Act was highly scrutinized by political conservatives, and repealing “Obamacare” became a major element of the Republican platform in the 2012 presidential election. It was also well known that Justices Scalia and Kennedy were staunch conservatives, so many predicted that they would vote against the Affordable Care Act due to political ideology. However, because they both voted in favor of the government in Gonzales v. Raich, they also had to vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. If they were to vote against the act, they would have possibly been subject to harsh criticism for basing their votes in political ideology and not on legal principle and constitutionality (Ramsey 2012). Similarly, because NFIB v. Sebelius relied primarily on Gonzales v. Raich, and consequently, Wickard v. Filburn, the Court would be considered an inconsistent, “nakedly political Court” if the Affordable Care Act had been overturned (Ramsey 2012). If Gonzales v. Raich had been decided differently, on more federalist grounds, it is likely that federalist opponents would have struck down the Affordable Care Act as well. Both cases prove the Court’s skepticism of siding against the government. At the same time, NFIB v. Sebelius’s split decision that struck down the conditional Medicare expansion was known as a small “victory for federalism” in comparison to Gonzales v. Raich (Ramsey 2012).

As stated above, federal DEA agents actively tried to override California’s Compassionate Use Act since it was first enacted in 1996, especially under the Bush Administration. After the decision in Gonzales v. Raich determined that federal criminalization of personal marijuana cultivation for medical use was constitutional, despite California’s Compassionate Use Act, many wondered if medical marijuana use would cease to exist in the state. California’s Compassionate Use Act was not struck down, but home raids like the one Angel Raich experienced remained somewhat common. A few months after the case, HopeNet Cooperative, a medical dispensary aimed at serving low-income medical marijuana patients was raided by DEA agents. Fifteen pounds of marijuana, marijuana seeds, and $20,000 were confiscated during the raid, but no arrests were made (Collier 2007). Although no arrests were made, raids like this one became an increasing threat to the health of patients who use medical marijuana as well as the dispensary business. In 2008, ending DEA raids and seizures of medical marijuana in California became a part of President Obama’s first campaign, and by Spring 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the DEA would no longer actively try to inhibit medical marijuana users in California Johnston 2009).

The decision to cease raids and other inhibiting measures was an iconic moment for medical marijuana supporters and other marijuana enthusiasts. Three years later, medical marijuana had been legalized for medical use in seventeen states as well as in Washington D.C. 2012 was also the year that marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Colorado and Washington (Johnson 2012). For the first time in the United States, adults 21 year of age and older, chronically ill or not, could possess up to an ounce of marijuana or grow up to six plants. Soon after, Washington D.C., Alaska, and Oregon also legalized marijuana for recreational use. It has become increasingly clear that the United States is one step closer to federal legalization for medical purposes. However, Gonzales v. Raich significantly inhibited momentum in pro-marijuana efforts for several years. One could also predict that the Gonzales v. Raich could have the potential to slow the progress of future social movements, liberal or conservative.Timeline 2

Timeline 2

Scholarly Commentary and Debate


Constitutional Provisions

Article I, §8, clause 3

[Commerce Clause]

“The Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;”

The majority found the Commerce clause gives congress the power to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana.

Major Statute(s) Under Review

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

Important Precedents

Wickard v. Filburn (1942)

United States v. Lopez (1995)

United States v. Morrison (2000)

Important Subsequent Cases

National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius (2012)

Web Resources

Raich, Angel. “Angel Raich’s Website.” Angel Raich’s Website. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.<http://www.angeljustice.org/angel/Angel_Raichs_Website.html>

“Gonzales v. Raich.” Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Apr 20, 2016. <https://www.oyez.org/cases/2004/03-1454

Collier, Robert. “Perils Grow in Battle for Medical Pot/Laws In Conflict-Environment Dicey for Patients, Dealers.” SFGATE, last modified March 22, 2007. Accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Perils-grow-in-battle-for-medical-pot-Laws-in-2607613.php

Johnson, Gene. “A History of Pot, From George Washington to Legalizing Ganja.” NBC News, last modified December 6, 2012. Accessed April 18, 2016, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/06/15726635-a-history-of-pot-from-george-washington-to-legalizing-ganja

Johnston, David & Lewis, Neil A. “Obama Administration to Stop Raids on Medical Marijuana Dispensers.” The New York Times, last modified March 18, 2009. Accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/us/19holder.html?_r=0.

Academic Books, Articles, and Law Reviews

Parker, Christopher M.. “Ideological Voting in Supreme Court Federalism Cases, 1953-2007”. The Justice System Journal 32.2 (2011): 206–234. Web…

Posner, Richard A.. “The Supreme Court, 2004 Term”. Harvard Law Review 119.1 (2005): 28–102. Web…

Raich, Angel., et al. Raich V. Gonzales: 545 U.S. 1 (2005). Durham, NC: Duke University School of Law, 2010. Video.

Tatelman, Todd,, and issuing body Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Gonzales V. Raich: Congress’s Power Under the Commerce Clause to Regulate Medical Marijuana. 2005. Web. 20th April 2016.

Young, Ernest A. “Just Blowing Smoke? Politics, Doctrine, and the Federalist Revival after Gonzales v. Raich.” The Supreme Court Review 2005, no. 1 (2005): 1-50. Web. Accessed April 18, 2016.

George T. Annas, “Medical Judgment in Court and in Congress: Abortion, Refusing Treatment, and Drug Regulation,” Human Rights 34, no. 4 (2007): 2-5, Accessed April 18, 2016. 

Michael D. Ramsey, “American Federalism and the Tragedy of Gonzales v. Raich,” University of Queensland Law Journal 31, no. 2 (2012): 203-232, Accessed April 18, 2016. 


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