Marijuana and the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has not comprehensively addressed the constitutionality of marijuana use — because of the Court's relative conservatism on drug law in general, there has been no need. But one state supreme court ruling suggests that if a progressive Court ever does confront the matter directly, marijuana decriminalization may become a national reality.

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 wrote for the unanimous court:

[W]e conclude that no adequate justification for the state's intrusion into the citizen's right to privacy by its prohibition of possession of marijuana by an adult for personal consumption in the home has been shown. The privacy of the individual's home cannot be breached absent a persuasive showing of a close and substantial relationship of the intrusion to a legitimate governmental interest. Here, mere scientific doubts will not suffice. The state must demonstrate a need based on proof that the public health or welfare will in fact suffer if the controls are not applied.

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. Yet these interests are insufficient to justify intrusions into the rights of adults in the privacy of their own homes. Further, neither the federal or Alaska constitution affords protection for the buying or selling of marijuana, nor absolute protection for its use or possession in public. Possession at home of amounts of marijuana indicative of intent to sell rather than possession for personal use is likewise unprotected.

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. The experts who testified below, including petitioner's witnesses, were unanimously opposed to the use of any psychoactive drugs. We agree completely. It is the responsibility of every individual to consider carefully the ramifications for himself and for those around him of using such substances.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never overturned a recreational drug ban on privacy grounds, but Rabinowitz's logic is persuasive.

Gonzales v. Raich (2005)

The U.S. Supreme Court did deal directly with marijuana use, ruling that the federal government may continue to arrest patients who have been prescribed marijuana and dispensaries who 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:

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 ...

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.

The Alaska precedent to the contrary, Justice O'Connor's dissent is the closest the U.S. Supreme Court has ever come to suggesting that marijuana use should be decriminalized in any manner.

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Head, Tom. "Marijuana and the Supreme Court." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/marijuana-and-the-supreme-court-721151. Head, Tom. (2017, February 9). Marijuana and the Supreme Court. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/marijuana-and-the-supreme-court-721151 Head, Tom. "Marijuana and the Supreme Court." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/marijuana-and-the-supreme-court-721151 (accessed December 17, 2017).