The Sphinx on Skunk: Justice Thomas Speaks Out(!) on the Inconsistent Enforcement of Federal Cannabis Prohibition

They say that war makes for strange bedfellows. As it turns out, the war on drugs is no exception. In a recent opinion from the United States Supreme Court, conservative stalwart Justice Clarence Thomas rebuked the federal government’s “half-in, half-out” stance on state-legal cannabis, and strongly implied that said approach was untenable from a federalist perspective. This criticism of federal drug policy from the right—rather than the left—could be another omen that more cultural conservative objections to state-legal cannabis are yielding to federalism and economic concerns and could also signal a future bipartisan action to provide safer harbor to legal cannabis businesses.

In Standing Akimbo, LLC v. United States, 594 U.S. __ (2021), the Supreme Court, on June 28, 2021, denied certiorari to a medical cannabis dispensary in Colorado attempting to prevent disclosure of certain company records sought by the IRS. The dispensary was accused by the IRS of impermissibly using 280E of the Internal Revenue Code to deduct business expenses; as the law stands now, cannabis businesses, because they deal in a federally illegal substance, can only deduct the costs of goods sold.

However, in so doing, Justice Thomas took the opportunity to wag his finger at the inconsistency of federal enforcement of the illegality of cannabis: “[T]he Federal Government’s current approach to marijuana bears little resemblance to the watertight nationwide prohibition that closely divided Court found necessary to justify the Government’s blanket prohibition in Raich.” Id. A known advocate for federalist principles, he went on to note that “[i]f the Government is now content to allow States to act ‘as laboratories’ ‘and try novel social and economic experiments,’. . . then it might no longer have authority to intrude on ‘the States’ core policy powers . . . to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.’” Id. (quoting Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 42 (2005) (O’Connor, J., dissenting)).

Justice Thomas’s references to Raich (and Justice O’Connor’s dissent therein) is unsurprising given his own dissenting opinion in that case, in which he voiced similar concerns of federal commerce clause power overreach. Raich, 545 U.S. at 57 (Thomas, J., dissenting). In Raich, the majority held that the federal government had power under the commerce clause to regulate state-legal intrastate cannabis—that is, cannabis that is grown, distributed, and consumed within a state where it is legal. Id. at 22.

Justice Thomas opined that intrastate regulation in that context went beyond the federal government’s commerce clause powers, in that cultivation and consumption of medical cannabis entirely in California was not “commerce” nor interstate. Id. at 59. Moreover, although the majority substantially relied on Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942) for the proposition that intrastate commerce that has a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce is within Congress’ regulatory power, Justice Thomas agreed with Justice O’Connor’s criticism of the majority’s reliance on Wickard. In Justice O’Connor’s dissent, she noted that, unlike Wickard, where the Court was presented with economic studies documenting the effects of personal intrastate wheat cultivation on the interstate wheat industry at large, there was no actual evidence that the small-scale medical cannabis cultivation and consumption by appellants had any “substantial effects” on interstate commerce. Id. at 53-54 (O’Connor, J., dissenting); id. at 67 (Thomas, J., dissenting). For his own part, Thomas criticized the majority’s apparent use of the Necessary and Proper Clause to hold that exercising federal police powers over intrastate legal cannabis cultivation was “necessary” to avoid a “gaping hole” in the Controlled Substances Act, id. at 21, reasoning that there was no evidence before the Court to suggest that failing to regulate intrastate cannabis cultivation and use would result in an inability to control interstate drug trafficking, id. at 63 (Thomas, J., dissenting), a criticism he alluded to in Standing Akimbo. 594 U.S. at __ (“A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the Federal Government’s piecemeal approach.”).

Indeed, these statements—from an eminent conservative, no less—could be a wake-up call for activist litigation to challenge the ruling in Raich, or for Congress to act to provide some measure of legalization or safe harbor to state-legal cannabis operators. As I have written previously, even if an impact litigant were to challenge Raich on its own rationale—without delving into the more academic discourse of Thomas’s dissent—such a challenge might bear fruit.

In reaching its final holding that Congress had a rational basis for concluding that intrastate cannabis cultivation would have a “substantial effect” on its ability to regulate interstate cannabis commerce, the Court in Raich explicitly premised its decision upon (1) difficulties distinguishing between state-legal cannabis and illegal cannabis grown elsewhere and (2) “concerns about diversion [of state-legal cannabis] into illicit channels.” 545 U.S. at 22. As more and more states legalize cannabis in some fashion—36 states have legalized adult-use cannabis, medical cannabis, or both—both of points one and two become weaker and weaker. That is, as to point one, as legal cannabis packaging becomes more regulated and sophisticated, the visible difference between legal cannabis and illegal cannabis becomes more and more obvious. As to point two, as more and more states legalize, it becomes less and less likely for legal cannabis to be “diverted” into illicit channels. For example, nearly the entire Pacific bloc of states—California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado—have legalized medical and adult-use cannabis. Leaving aside state law prohibitions, legal cannabis moved throughout this region is very unlikely to result in “diversion” of legal cannabis “into illicit channels.”

Although whether this shot across the bow of the federal government’s cannabis enforcement regime will result in or motivate any lasting change—either judicially or legislatively—remains to be seen, the cannabis industry will likely view this statement of support from a somewhat unexpected source as a moral victory.

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