Marijuana in Supreme Court Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has not comprehensively addressed the constitutionality of marijuana use. The court's relative conservatism on drug laws means that there hasn't been much of a need for it to weigh in on the issue, but one state ruling suggests that if a progressive court ever does confront the matter directly, marijuana decriminalization may become a national reality. This is gradually happening anyway as state after state legalizes marijuana.

Alaska Supreme Court: Ravin v. State (1975)

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In 1975, Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz of the Alaska Supreme Court declared the criminalization of personal marijuana use by adults, absent a compelling government interest, to be a violation of the ​right to privacy. He argued that the state did not have adequate justification to intrude into the lives of people who use pot in the privacy of their own homes. Before taking such an action, the state needs to demonstrate that public health will suffer if it does not breach people's privacy rights, but Rabinowitz asserted that the government had not proven that marijuana put the citizenry at risk.

"The state has a legitimate concern with avoiding the spread of marijuana use to adolescents who may not be equipped with the maturity to handle the experience prudently, as well as a legitimate concern with the problem of driving under the influence of marijuana," he said. "Yet, these interests are insufficient to justify intrusions into the rights of adults in the privacy of their own homes."

Rabinowitz, however, made it clear that neither the federal nor Alaska government protects the buying or selling of marijuana, possession in public, or possession in large amounts that indicate intent to sell. The judge also stated that individuals, even those using recreationally at home, needed to carefully consider the potential consequences of marijuana on themselves or others. He elaborated:

"In view of our holding that possession of marijuana by adults at home for personal use is constitutionally protected, we wish to make clear that we do not mean to condone the use of marijuana."

Despite the detailed argument that Rabinowitz laid out, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to overturn a recreational drug ban on privacy grounds. In 2014, however, Alaskans voted to legalize both the possession and sale of marijuana.

Gonzales v. Raich (2005)

In Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court directly addressed marijuana use, ruling that the federal government may continue to arrest patients who have been prescribed marijuana and the staff of the dispensaries that provide them with it. While three justices disagreed with the ruling on state's rights grounds, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the only justice who suggested that the California medical marijuana law may have been just. She stated:

"The Government has not overcome empirical doubt that the number of Californians engaged in personal cultivation, possession, and use of medical marijuana, or the amount of marijuana they produce, is enough to threaten the federal regime. Nor has it shown that Compassionate Use Act marijuana users have been or are realistically likely to be responsible for the drug's seeping into the market in a significant way ..."

O'Connor went on to object to the high court taking "abstract" cues from Congress to support making it a federal crime to grow marijuana in one's home for personal medicinal use. She said that if she were a Californian, she would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative and if she were a lawmaker in the state, she 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," she argued.

Justice O'Connor's dissent in this case is the closest the U.S. Supreme Court has come to suggesting that marijuana use should be decriminalized in any manner.