ASHCROFT v. Raich, the Supreme Court's medical marijuana case, isn't really about medical marijuana. It's about power -- the power of Congress to exert control, and the power of the Constitution to rein Congress in.
The named plaintiff in this case is Angel McClary Raich, a California mother of two afflicted with tumors in her brain and uterus, asthma, severe weight loss, and endometriosis. To ease her symptoms, doctors put her on dozens of standard medications. When none of them helped, they prescribed marijuana. That did help -- so much so that Raich, who had been confined to a wheelchair, was able to walk.
Raich's marijuana was supplied to her for free from two donors who grew it in California, using only California soil, water, and supplies. Under the state's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which exempts the use of marijuana under a doctor's supervision from criminal sanction, all of this was perfectly legal.
But under the federal Controlled Substances Act, the possession of marijuana for any reason is illegal. The question is which law should prevail in this case: state or federal?
Normally that wouldn't be an issue. Under the Constitution, a valid exercise of federal power trumps any conflicting state law. But is the application of the federal drug law to Raich a valid exercise of federal power?
Americans often forget that the federal government was never intended to have limitless authority. Unlike the states, which have a broad "police power" to regulate public health, safety, and welfare, the national government has only the powers granted to it by the Constitution. Where does the Constitution empower Congress to bar pain-wracked patients from using the marijuana their doctors say they need?
According to the Bush administration, it says it in the Commerce Clause, which authorizes Congress to "regulate commerce . . . among the several states." And it is true that those words have long been treated as a broad grant of power allowing Congress to control almost anything it chooses.
The Supreme Court's most expansive reading of the Commerce Clause came in Wickard v. Filburn, a unanimous 1942 decision about a farmer who grew more wheat on his farm than was allowed under federal law. Roscoe Filburn argued that his excess wheat was none of Washington's business, since it all remained on his farm -- some of it he ground into flour, some he fed to livestock, and some he planted the following year. None of it entered interstate commerce, so what right did Congress have to penalize it?
But a unanimous Supreme Court ruled against Filburn. It held that his 239 excess bushels of wheat affected the national wheat market whether he sold it or not, since wheat he produced for his own use was wheat he didn't have to buy elsewhere. If other farmers did the same thing, demand for wheat -- and its price -- would fall. That ruling threw the door open to virtually unbridled congressional activism. After all, if wheat that never left the farm it grew on was tied to "interstate commerce" and therefore subject to federal control, what wasn't? Not surprisingly, the years since Wickard have seen a vast expansion of federal authority.
Still, the Supreme Court has never actually held that congressional power under the Commerce Clause is unlimited. Twice in the past 10 years, it has struck down laws that could not be justified as commerce-related even under Wickard's hyperloose standard. But if the government gets its way in this case, the court really will have remade the Commerce Clause into a license to regulate anything. For unlike Filburn -- who was, after all, engaged in the business of running a farm and selling grain -- Raich is engaged in no commercial or economic activity of any kind. She is not buying or selling a thing. The marijuana she uses is not displacing any other marijuana.
But that point seemed lost on the court during last week's oral argument. "It looks like Wickard to me," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "I always used to laugh at Wickard, but that's what Wickard says."
Well, if Wickard says that Congress can ban or penalize Angel Raich's marijuana -- noncommercial, medically necessary, locally grown, and legal under state law -- then Congress can reach absolutely any activity at all. When I was a law student in the 1980s, I didn't laugh at Wickard, I was appalled by it. If Ashcroft v. Raich is decided for the government, future law students will have an even more appalling case to study.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.