Supreme Court Finds that Federal Law Trumps State Medical Marijuana Laws

Volume 4, Issue 5
June 9, 2005

On Monday, June 6, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Controlled Substances Act ("CSA") properly applies to prevent the local cultivation and use of marijuana even if undertaken pursuant to a state's medical marijuana laws as Congress has the power to regulate purely local activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The Court noted that the failure to regulate the intrastate manufacture and possession of marijuana would leave a gaping hole in the federal government's efforts to battle illegal drug trafficking.

At issue was the Drug Enforcement Administration's seizure and destruction of six cannabis plants of two female California residents who both use doctor-recommended marijuana for serious medical conditions. The two women and others sued for injunctive and declaratory relief to prohibit the enforcement of the CSA to the extent it prevented the use of medical marijuana under state law. The Court ruled that Congress has the power to regulate interstate markets for medicinal substances, even portions of such markets that are produced and consumed locally. Thus, the Court concluded that Congress could ban the use of substances rendered illegal by the CSA, which is an important component of the national "war on drugs." The CSA designates marijuana as contraband for any purpose and Congress expressly found that marijuana has no acceptable medical uses. The Court also held that the existence of a state law allowing for the use of marijuana was not a factor in its decision because, pursuant to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, if there is a conflict between federal law and state law, federal law prevails.

While not an employment case, this recent decision illustrates the continued tension between federal and state law as it applies to medical marijuana. Nevada is one of at least nine states that permit the use of medical marijuana under controlled circumstances, including in consultation with an attending physician for the treatment of a chronic or debilitating medical condition and the possession of a registry identification card issued by the Nevada Department of Agriculture. See NRS Chapter 653A, Medical Use of Marijuana. This case should prompt employers to review their drug use policies to make sure they address the use of drugs rendered illegal by federal, state or local law. The Supreme Court's decision does not completely resolve employment decisions that are based on an employee's lawful use of medical marijuana under state law that is simultaneously recognized as unlawful under federal law. However, the decision does strengthen employers' decisions to refuse to accommodate such use of medical marijuana. Nonetheless, care must be taken as the underlying medical issue resulting in the use of medical marijuana may be a disability under federal or state law. In such situations, employers should consult with counsel.

Gonzales v. Raich, --- U.S. ---, 2005 WL 1321358 (U.S. June 6, 2005) (available on the Internet at

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.