Justice Thomas Criticizes Federal Marijuana Policy, Questions Whether Prohibition Remains Necessary or Proper

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has issued an unexpected statement questioning whether the federal government’s continuing prohibition on marijuana is necessary or proper. His statement was made in conjunction with the denial of a writ of certiorari in the matter of Standing Akimbo LLC v. United States, which asked the court to address whether a medical marijuana dispensary could properly deduct ordinary business expenses in violation of section 280E of the federal tax code. 

In his statement, Justice Thomas bluntly acknowledges that the reasoning behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich ‒ which held that the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce authorizes it to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana ‒ has been “greatly undermined” by federal policies over the past 16 years. He characterized the federal government’s current approach as a contradictory and unstable “half-in, the half-out regime” that “strains basic principles of federalism and conceals traps for the unwary.” 

Examples of the federal government’s mixed signals include the 2013 Cole Memorandum issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress’s prohibition in place since 2015 that restricts the DOJ from spending funds to prevent states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws. These actions by the federal government have “broad ramifications” according to Justice Thomas, given that 36 states allow medical marijuana use and 18 of those states also allow adult use of cannabis. 

Behind the Statement

In this environment, Justice Thomas rhetorically asks whether it is now reasonable for an ordinary person to think that the federal government “has retreated from its once absolute ban on marijuana,” and for cannabis business owners to think “that their intrastate marijuana operations will be treated like any other enterprise that is legal under state law.” He points out, however, that “legality under state law and the absence of federal criminal enforcement do not ensure equal treatment.” 

Justice Thomas clearly is bothered by the strict enforcement of the federal tax code to the detriment of state-legal businesses and the simultaneous absence of federal enforcement in areas such as cultivation and distribution of marijuana that is legal under state law. He describes the federal government’s willingness to look the other way as “more episodic than coherent.” Justice Thomas identifies other harmful results caused by this schizophrenic federal approach, including federal prohibitions on financial institutions providing services to the cannabis industry, which has resulted in significant public safety issues, and civil lawsuits brought against individuals and businesses under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. 

Justice Thomas concludes by noting that the federal government’s current approach to marijuana bears little resemblance to the uniform policy of prohibition upon which a closely divided Supreme Court based its decision in Raich 16 years ago. He warns that by allowing states to act as laboratories that try novel social and economic experiments, the federal government may no longer have authority to intrude on the states’ core police powers. “A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the Federal Government’s piecemeal approach.” 

Marijuana Policy

Though Justice Thomas’ statement has no formal precedential value, it nevertheless represents the most explicit statement yet from a sitting – and conservative – Supreme Court Justice that questions the rationality of current federal marijuana policy. For court watchers, this represents a seismic shift on marijuana policy within the highest court of the land. Justice Thomas’s bold defense of federalism also should prove influential to members of the other branches of government who remain cautious on broad marijuana reform.

© 2023 Wilson Elser
National Law Review, Volumess XI, Number 180