United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative

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In United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001), the United States Supreme Court rejected the common-law medical necessity defense to crimes enacted under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, regardless of their legal status under the laws of states such as California that recognize a medical use for marijuana. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative was represented by Gerald Uelmen.

Facts of the case

This case would not have arisen without the passage of Proposition 215, California's Compassionate Use Act. The Act allowed a patient or his primary caregiver to cultivate or possess marijuana on the advice of a physician. Bolstered by this enactment, certain groups organized to supply marijuana to patients in a manner consistent with the Act. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative is one such group.

In January 1998, the U.S. Government sued the OCBC to stop the cultivation and distribution of marijuana in violation of federal law. The Government based its argument on the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, which forbade the distribution, manufacture, and possession with intent to distribute or manufacture a controlled substance (including marijuana). The lawsuit began in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and came before district judge Charles Breyer. Judge Breyer concluded that the Government would likely prevail on the merits, and issued the injunction.

The OCBC believed, however, that ceasing the distribution of marijuana to patients would be harmful to them, and therefore chose to violate Judge Breyer's injunction. The Government brought contempt proceedings against the OCBC. The OCBC argued that the distributions were medically necessary. Judge Breyer found OCBC in contempt, denied OCBC's request to authorize medically necessary distributions of marijuana, and authorized the U.S. Marshals to seize OCBC's premises. At this point, the OCBC agreed to stop distributing marijuana. It also appealed Judge Breyer's decision to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. It held that medical necessity was a legally cognizable defense to charges under the Controlled Substances Act. Accordingly, the district court could have fashioned an injunction that was more limited in scope than a total ban on distributing marijuana. The Ninth Circuit ordered the district court to consider the criteria by which OCBC could distribute marijuana under the rubric of medical necessity. The Government then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

When the case came before the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself from deciding the case because his brother Charles had been the district judge in the case.

Majority opinion

Justice Thomas wrote for the majority. The OCBC contended that the Controlled Substances Act was susceptible of a medical necessity exception to the ban on distribution and manufacture of marijuana. The Court concluded otherwise.

Since 1812, the Court had held that there were no common-law crimes in federal law. See United States v. Hudson and Goodwin. That is, the law required Congress, rather than the federal courts, to define federal crimes. The Controlled Substances Act did not recognize a medical necessity exception. Thus "a medical necessity exception for marijuana is at odds with the terms of the Controlled Substances Act." When it passed the Controlled Substances Act, Congress made a value judgment that marijuana had "no currently accepted medical use." It was not the province of the Court to usurp this value judgment made by the legislature. Thus, it was wrong for the Ninth Circuit to hold that the Controlled Substances Act did contain a medical necessity defense. It was also wrong for the Ninth Circuit to order the district court to fashion a more limited injunction that would take into account the fact that marijuana was necessary for certain people to obtain relief from symptoms of chronic illnesses.

Subsequent history

The Court expressly noted that it did not decide another important issue of federal law—whether federal law could override a California law that allowed the purely local cultivation and distribution of marijuana. It ordered the Ninth Circuit to address this argument in the first instance, and the Ninth Circuit in turn asked the district court to do so. After further proceedings in the district court, OCBC appealed to the Ninth Circuit again. The Ninth Circuit stayed its decision pending the Supreme Court's decision in Gonzales v. Raich. That decision was issued in June 2005. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court, which rejected this claim, and OCBC appealed again to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit has stayed the proceedings in this case. The stay is scheduled to expire October 16, 2006.


Since the ruling of this case, The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative has gone on to become the largest distributor of medical marijuana ID cards in the state of California. Currently over 100,000 patients throughout the state are registered members of the OCBC's ID program.