In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court sustained an application of the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), banning all private use of marijuana, as applied to two women who had cultivated or otherwise acquired marijuana for the treatment of severe pain pursuant to the California Compassionate Use Act. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens placed Raich at the intersection of two landmark Commerce Clause precedents: Wickard v. Filburn, the notorious 1942 decision, which upheld a penalty under the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 applied to a local farmer who violated his wheat quota but who had used the modest excess portion entirely on his own farm, and Lopez v. United States, the controversial 1995 decision, which stuck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act and for the first time in over sixty years imposed limits on the scope of Congress’s Commerce Clause power based upon the underlying subject matter of the regulated activity.

Writing for the Lopez majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist had claimed not to disturb the expansive post-New Deal Commerce Clause precedents, but rather to fit all of the cases neatly into three circumscribed categories: the use of channels of interstate commerce; instrumentalities or persons or things traveling in interstate commerce; and economic activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Significantly, the Lopez Court redefined the third and most important category from its original formulation set out in Wickard. While Wickard had allowed Congressional regulation of local activity, “whatever its nature . . . if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce,” Rehnquist instead used “economic” to qualify the activity itself.

Following the revised Lopez formulation, the Raich Court inquired whether cultivating, acquiring, and using medical marijuana qualified as a regulable economic activity. Relying upon a dictionary for the proposition that economics refers to “the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities,” Stevens determined that just as the Wickard Court had sustained Congress’s regulation of wheat production, so too, the Raich Court was compelled to sustain Congress’s prohibition of marijuana acquisition, production, and use even if for medical purposes and on the advice of a physician as permitted under state law.

This Article traces the Lopez Court’s doctrinal modification, explores its implications, and offers an alternative economic analysis that considers the need for a central coordinating authority to effectuate the Congressional policy enacted pursuant to the Commerce Clause. The analysis reveals the shortcomings of Justice Stevens’s analysis in employing a dictionary definition of economics and of focusing strictly on the nature of the underlying activity to equate Wickard and Raich. Using an analysis that draws instead upon the prisoners’ dilemma and the multiple Nash equilibrium bargaining game, this Article demonstrates that the Court could have reconciled the expansive post-New Deal Commerce Clause cases with the more recent efforts, embodied in Lopez and in Morrison v. United States, to impose meaningful substantive restraints on the scope of Congress’s Commerce Clause powers. And it could have done so while applying Lopez to invalidate the CSA as applied to Respondents’ activities.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that Wickard does not represent an extreme example of Congressional Commerce Clause powers. Instead, Wickard relies upon the need for a central authority to curb national wheat outputs as a means of controlling price, and the need for a meaningful signal concerning the level at which the governmentally imposed quota regime will be enforced to avoid the consequence of cheating in undermining the overall pricing scheme. Neither of these concerns, nor any of the other identified concerns that justify the broad post-New Deal exercise of Congressional Commerce Clause powers, properly bear on the facts of Raich.


Constitutional Law | Jurisprudence | Law and Economics | Public Law and Legal Theory

Date of this Version

August 2005