United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers

532 U.S. 483 (2001)
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The Respondent, Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative (Cooperative), was a not-for-profit medical cannabis dispensary established after California voters enacted a measure that created “an exception to California laws” that prohibited “the possession and cultivation of marijuana.” The Cooperative had a physician as its medical director, registered nurses as staff during business hours, and dispensed marijuana to entitled members that possessed an identification card. To become a member of the Cooperative, the patient had to provide a written statement from a treating physician assenting to marijuana therapy and submit to a screening interview. The United States (US) claimed that the Cooperative’s activities violated the federal Controlled Substances Act’s (the Act) prohibitions on distributing, manufacturing and possessing the intent to distribute or manufacture a controlled substance and initiated a suit.

The District Court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the US enjoining the Cooperative from distributing and manufacturing marijuana. The Cooperative openly violated the injunction, and though “human suffering” could result, the District Court modified the injunction to allow its premises to be seized. The Cooperative then sought to modify the injunction but this was summarily rejected by the District Court. The Cooperative then sought to appeal the contempt order and the modified injunction arguing that “any distributions were medically necessary.” However it voluntarily purged its contempt by promising compliance and the Court of Appeals determined the matter moot. The appeal of the modification to the injunction continued. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the injunction based on the opinion that a medical necessity defense would likely apply in the circumstances.

The Court first examined whether medical necessity was a legally cognizable defense to violations of the Act. The Court rejected the Cooperative’s argument and held that “medical necessity is not a defense to manufacturing and distributing marijuana.” It explained that because the Act expressly contemplated that many drugs had “a useful and legitimate medical purpose” and were “generally necessary to maintain the health and welfare of the American people,” the choice by Congress to classify marijuana as a “Schedule 1” substance, with the only express exception for the use of schedule I drugs being for government-approved research, reflected a balanced legislative “determination of values” that marijuana had “no currently accepted medical use” worthy of another exception. The Court noted the law would hold even if marijuana had medical benefits that are not currently accepted. Even the Cooperative admitted that Congress wished “to assert the most restrictive level of controls created” by the Act.

The Court then examined the broader question of whether a medical necessity defense for marijuana is ever possible. The controlling opinion of the Court suggested that it would look negatively upon such a defense even for anyone falling under the purview of the Act. In fact, the Court called into question the necessity defense in its entirety, suggesting it was “an open question whether federal courts ever ha[d] authority to recognize a necessity defense not provided by statute”; they then declined to address that issue. But the holding of the case was limited to manufactures and distributors, leaving it unknown whether the court would not allow the defense to seriously ill patients using marijuana as well. The expansive language of the Court’s opinion led to a concurring opinion from three justices making explicit their lack of support for the dicta and that the holding of no necessity defense was to be applied narrowly as written.

Finally, the Court examined whether the district court could tailor the injunction to account for medical necessity irrespective of whether there is a legal necessity defense in the statute. It held that district courts have broad discretion over questions of equity, unless a statute clearly provided otherwise. However in this case, the “mere fact that the District Court had discretion d[id] not suggest that the District Court, when evaluating the motion to modify the injunction, could consider any and all factors that might relate to the public interest or the conveniences of the parties, including the medical needs of the Cooperative's patients.” It could not “override Congress' policy choice, articulated in a statute, as to what behavior should be prohibited.” The court was “limited to evaluating how such interest and conveniences are affected by the selection of an injunction over other enforcement mechanisms.” In this case, because the “statutory prohibitions cover even those who have what could be termed a medical necessity, the Act preclude[d] consideration” of the necessity defense and it would be an error for the District Court to take it into consideration.

“Under any conception of legal necessity, one principle is clear: The defense cannot succeed when the legislature itself has made a ‘determination of values.’ 1 W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law § 5.4, p. 629 (1986). In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a Government approved research project). Whereas some other drugs can be dispensed and prescribed for medical use, see 21 U. S. C. § 829, the same is not true for marijuana. Indeed, for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has ‘no currently accepted medical use’ at all. § 812.” 532 U.S., p. 491.

“But the mere fact that the District Court had discretion does not suggest that the District Court, when evaluating the motion to modify the injunction, could consider any and all factors that might relate to the public interest or the conveniences of the parties, including the medical needs of the Cooperative's patients. On the contrary, a court sitting in equity cannot ‘ignore the judgment of Congress, deliberately expressed in legislation.’ Virginian R. Co. v. Railway Employees, 300 U. S. 515, 551 (1937). A district court cannot, for example, override Congress' policy choice, articulated in a statute, as to what behavior should be prohibited. ‘Once Congress, exercising its delegated powers, has decided the order of priorities in a given area, it is . . . for the courts to enforce them when enforcement is sought.’ Hill, 437 U. S., at 194. Courts of equity cannot, in their discretion, reject the balance that Congress has struck in a statute. Id., at 194-195. Their choice (unless there is statutory language to the contrary) is simply whether a particular means of enforcing the statute should be chosen over another permissible means; their choice is not whether enforcement is preferable to no enforcement at all. Consequently, when a court of equity exercises its discretion, it may not consider the advantages and disadvantages of nonenforcement of the statute, but only the advantages and disadvantages of ‘employing the extraordinary remedy of injunction,’ RomeroBarcelo, 456 U. S., at 312, over the other available methods of enforcement. Cf. id., at 316 (referring to ‘discretion to rely on remedies other than an immediate prohibitory injunction’). To the extent the district court considers the public interest and the conveniences of the parties, the court is limited to evaluating how such interest and conveniences are affected by the selection of an injunction over other enforcement mechanisms.” 532 U.S., pp. 497 – 498.

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