Under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, a classification reserved for drugs found by the federal government to have no currently accepted medical use. 21 U.S.C. 812(c), Schedule I (c)(10).
Consistent with this classification system, the CSA does not allow Schedule I drugs to be dispensed upon a prescription, unlike drugs in the less restrictive drug schedules. Id. 829. In particular, the CSA prohibits all possession, manufacture, distribution or dispensing of Schedule I substances, including marijuana, except in the context of a government-approved research project. Id. 823(f), 841(a)(1), 844.
Some states have passed laws that create a medical use exception to otherwise applicable state marijuana sanctions. California was the first state to pass such a law, when, in 1996, California voters passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 215, which removed certain state criminal penalties for the medical use of marijuana.
In the wake of Proposition 215, various cannabis clubs formed in California to provide marijuana to patients whose physicians had recommended such treatment. In 1998, the United States sued to enjoin one of these clubs, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, from cultivating and distributing marijuana. The United States argued that, whether or not the Cooperative's actions were legal under California law, they violated the CSA. Following lower court proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the government's petition for a writ of certiorari to review whether the CSA permitted the distribution of marijuana to patients who could establish "medical necessity." United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001).
Although the tension between California's Proposition 215 and the broad federal prohibition on marijuana was the backdrop for the Oakland Cannabis case, the legal issue addressed by the Supreme Court did not involve the constitutionality of either the federal or state statute. Rather, the Court confined its analysis to an interpretation of the CSA and whether there was a medical necessity defense to the Act's marijuana prohibitions. The Court held that there was not. While observing that the CSA did not expressly abolish the defense, the Court stated that the statutory scheme left no doubt that the defense was unavailable for marijuana. Because marijuana appeared in Schedule I, it reflected a determination that marijuana had no currently accepted medical use for purposes of the CSA. The Court concluded that a medical necessity defense could not apply under the CSA to a drug determined to have no medical use.
The Oakland Cannabis case upheld the federal government's power to enforce federal marijuana prohibitions without regard to a claim of medical necessity. Thus, while California (and other states) exempt certain medical marijuana users and their designated caregivers from state sanctions, these individuals remain subject to federal sanctions for marijuana use.
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