United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop.

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In United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop., 532 U.S. 483 (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, without dissent,the federal law prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of marijuana against a challenge based on medical need. The issue concerned the argument that patients, some of whom suffered from devastating illnesses, have a medical need for marijuana. The plaintiffs challenged a federal law interfering with patients' access to the drug.

Must Congress create a health exception to a generally applicable criminal law? The answer in Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop. was an emphatic "no". Although the Court declined to reach constitutional arguments in that case, there can be no doubt that the Constitution did not require a different outcome.

"Under any conception of legal necessity, one principle is clear: The defense cannot succeed when the legislature itself has made a 'determination of values.'" Id. at 491 (quoting 1 W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law § 5.4, p. 629 (1986)).

Three Justices concurred in the judgment, writing separately to leave open the possibility that patients themselves may still enjoy a medical necessity defense to laws banning certain drugs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop., 532 U.S. at 499-503 (Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg, JJ., concurring).

The concurring Justices in Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop. expressed another reservation about the majority decision. They worried about conflict between federal and state law concerning the alleged medical need for narcotics. 532 U.S. at 502. Several states have passed laws, typically by referendum, establishing a medical exemption for allegedly medical use of narcotics. But as the Court majority observed in rejecting this concern about federalism, "we are 'construing an Act of Congress, not drafting it.'" Id. at 495 (quoting United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 415 n.11 (1980)).