The Controlled Substances Act, 84 Stat. 1242, 21 U. S. C. § 801 et seq., prohibits the manufacture and distribution of various drugs, including marijuana. In this case, we must decide whether there is a medical necessity exception to these prohibitions. We hold that there is not.
In November 1996, California voters enacted an initiative measure entitled the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Attempting "[t]o ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes," Cal. Health & Safety Code Ann. § 11362.5 (West Supp. 2001), the statute creates an exception to California laws prohibiting the possession and cultivation of marijuana. These prohibitions no longer apply to a patient or his primary caregiver who possesses or cultivates marijuana for the patient's medical purposes upon the recommendation or approval of a physician. Ibid. In the wake of this voter initiative, several groups organized "medical cannabis dispensaries" to meet the needs of qualified patients. United States v. Cannabis Cultivators Club, 5 F.Supp.2d 1086, 1092 (ND Cal. 1998). Respondent Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative is one of these groups.
The Cooperative is a not-for-profit organization that operates in downtown Oakland. A physician serves as medical director, and registered nurses staff the Cooperative during business hours. To become a member, a patient must provide a written statement from a treating physician assenting to marijuana therapy and must submit to a screening interview. If accepted as a member, the patient receives an identification card entitling him to obtain marijuana from the Cooperative.
In January 1998, the United States sued the Cooperative and its executive director, respondent Jeffrey Jones (together,
The Cooperative did not appeal the injunction but instead openly violated it by distributing marijuana to numerous persons, App. to Pet. for Cert. 21a—23a. To terminate these violations, the Government initiated contempt proceedings. In defense, the Cooperative contended that any distributions were medically necessary. Marijuana is the only drug, according to the Cooperative, that can alleviate the severe pain and other debilitating symptoms of the Cooperative's patients. Id., at 29a. The District Court rejected this defense, however, after determining there was insufficient evidence that each recipient of marijuana was in actual danger of imminent harm without the drug. Id., at 29a—32a. The District Court found the Cooperative in contempt and, at the Government's request, modified the preliminary injunction to empower the United States Marshal to seize the Cooperative's premises. Id., at 37a. Although recognizing that
The Cooperative appealed both the contempt order and the denial of the Cooperative's motion to modify. Before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided the case, however, the Cooperative voluntarily purged its contempt by promising the District Court that it would comply with the initial preliminary injunction. Consequently, the Court of Appeals determined that the appeal of the contempt order was moot. 190 F.3d 1109, 1112-1113 (1999).
The denial of the Cooperative's motion to modify the injunction, however, presented a live controversy that was appealable under 28 U. S. C. § 1292(a)(1). Reaching the merits of this issue, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. According to the Court of Appeals, the medical necessity defense was a "legally cognizable defense" that likely would apply in the circumstances. 190 F. 3d, at 1114. Moreover, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the District Court erroneously "believed that it had no discretion to issue an injunction that was more limited in scope than the Controlled Substances Act itself." Id., at 1114-1115. Because, according to the Court of Appeals, district courts retain "broad equitable discretion" to fashion injunctive relief, the District Court could have, and should have, weighed the "public interest" and considered factors such as the serious harm in depriving patients of marijuana. Ibid. Remanding the case, the Court of Appeals instructed the District Court to consider "the criteria for a medical necessity exemption, and, should it modify the injunction, to set forth those criteria in the modification order." Id., at 1115. Following these instructions, the District Court granted the Cooperative's
The United States petitioned for certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' decision that medical necessity is a legally cognizable defense to violations of the Controlled Substances Act. Because the decision raises significant questions as to the ability of the United States to enforce the Nation's drug laws, we granted certiorari. 531 U.S. 1010 (2000).
The Controlled Substances Act provides that, "[e]xcept as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally . . . to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance." 21 U. S. C. § 841(a)(1). The subchapter, in turn, establishes exceptions.
The Cooperative contends, however, that notwithstanding the apparently absolute language of § 841(a), the statute is subject to additional, implied exceptions, one of which is medical necessity. According to the Cooperative, because necessity was a defense at common law, medical necessity should be read into the Controlled Substances Act. We disagree.
As an initial matter, we note that it is an open question whether federal courts ever have authority to recognize a necessity defense not provided by statute. A necessity defense "traditionally covered the situation where physical forces beyond the actor's control rendered illegal conduct the lesser of two evils." United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 410 (1980). Even at common law, the defense of necessity was somewhat controversial. See, e. g., Queen v. Dudley & Stephens, 14 Q. B. 273 (1884). And under our constitutional system, in which federal crimes are defined by statute rather than by common law, see United States v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32, 34 (1812), it is especially so. As we have stated: "Whether, as a policy matter, an exemption should be created is a question for legislative judgment, not judicial inference." United States v. Rutherford, 442 U.S. 544, 559 (1979). Nonetheless, we recognize that this Court has discussed the possibility of a necessity defense without altogether rejecting it. See, e. g., Bailey, supra, at 415.
Under any conception of legal necessity, one principle is clear: The defense cannot succeed when the legislature itself has made a "determination of values." 1 W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law § 5.4, p. 629 (1986). In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a Governmentapproved research project). Whereas some other drugs can be dispensed and prescribed for medical use, see 21 U. S. C. § 829, the same is not true for marijuana. Indeed, for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use" at all. § 812.
The structure of the Act supports this conclusion. The statute divides drugs into five schedules, depending in part on whether the particular drug has a currently accepted
The Cooperative points out, however, that the Attorney General did not place marijuana into schedule I. Congress put it there, and Congress was not required to find that a drug lacks an accepted medical use before including the drug in schedule I. We are not persuaded that this distinction has any significance to our inquiry. Under the Cooperative's logic, drugs that Congress places in schedule I could be distributed when medically necessary whereas drugs that the Attorney General places in schedule I could not. Nothing in the statute, however, suggests that there are two tiers of schedule I narcotics, with drugs in one tier more readily available than drugs in the other. On the contrary, the statute consistently treats all schedule I drugs alike. See, e. g., § 823(a) (providing criteria for Attorney General to consider when determining whether to register an applicant to manufacture schedule I controlled substances), § 823(b) (providing criteria for Attorney General to consider when determining whether to register an applicant to distribute schedule I controlled substances), § 823(f) (providing procedures for becoming a government-approved research project), § 826 (establishing production quotas for schedule I drugs). Moreover,
The Cooperative further argues that use of schedule I drugs generally—whether placed in schedule I by Congress or the Attorney General—can be medically necessary, notwithstanding that they have "no currently accepted medical use." According to the Cooperative, a drug may not yet have achieved general acceptance as a medical treatment but may nonetheless have medical benefits to a particular patient or class of patients. We decline to parse the statute in this manner. It is clear from the text of the Act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception. The statute expressly contemplates that many drugs "have a useful and legitimate medical purpose and are necessary to maintain the health and general welfare of the American people," § 801(1), but it includes no exception at all for any medical use of marijuana. Unwilling to view this omission as an accident, and unable in any event to override a legislative determination manifest in a statute, we reject the Cooperative's argument.
For these reasons, we hold that medical necessity is not a defense to manufacturing and distributing marijuana.
The Cooperative contends that, even if the Controlled Substances Act forecloses the medical necessity defense, there is an alternative ground for affirming the Court of Appeals. This case, the Cooperative reminds us, arises from a motion to modify an injunction to permit distributions that are medically necessary. According to the Cooperative, the Court of Appeals was correct that the District Court had "broad equitable discretion" to tailor the injunctive relief to account for medical necessity, irrespective of whether there is a legal defense of necessity in the statute. Id., at 1114. To sustain the judgment below, the argument goes, we need only reaffirm that federal courts, in the exercise of their equity jurisdiction, have discretion to modify an injunction based upon a weighing of the public interest.
We disagree. Although district courts whose equity powers have been properly invoked indeed have discretion in fashioning injunctive relief (in the absence of a statutory restriction), the Court of Appeals erred concerning the factors that the district courts may consider in exercising such discretion.
As an initial matter, the Cooperative is correct that, when district courts are properly acting as courts of equity, they have discretion unless a statute clearly provides otherwise. For "several hundred years," courts of equity have enjoyed "sound discretion" to consider the "necessities of the public interest" when fashioning injunctive relief. Hecht Co. v. Bowles, 321 U.S. 321, 329-330 (1944). See also id., at 329 ("The essence of equity jurisdiction has been the power of the Chancellor to do equity and to mould each decree to the necessities of the particular case. Flexibility rather than rigidity has distinguished it"); Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo, 456 U.S. 305, 312 (1982) ("In exercising their sound discretion, courts of equity should pay particular regard for the public consequences in employing the extraordinary remedy of injunction"). Such discretion is displaced only by a "clear and valid legislative command." Porter v. Warner Holding Co., 328 U.S. 395, 398 (1946). See also Romero-Barcelo, supra, at 313 ("Of course, Congress may intervene and guide or control the exercise of the courts' discretion, but we do not lightly assume that Congress has intended to depart from established principles").
The Cooperative is also correct that the District Court in this case had discretion. The Controlled Substances Act vests district courts with jurisdiction to enjoin violations of the Act, 21 U. S. C. § 882(a). But a "grant of jurisdiction to issue [equitable relief] hardly suggests an absolute duty to do so under any and all circumstances," Hecht, supra, at 329 (emphasis deleted). Because the District Court's use of equitable power is not textually required by any "clear and valid legislative command," the court did not have to issue an injunction.
TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), does not support the Government's contention that the District Court lacked discretion in fashioning injunctive relief. In Hill, the Court held that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 required the
But the mere fact that the District Court had discretion does not suggest that the District Court, when evaluating the motion to modify the injunction, could consider any and all factors that might relate to the public interest or the conveniences of the parties, including the medical needs of the Cooperative's patients. On the contrary, a court sitting in equity cannot "ignore the judgment of Congress, deliberately expressed in legislation." Virginian R. Co. v. Railway Employees, 300 U.S. 515, 551 (1937). A district court cannot, for example, override Congress' policy choice, articulated in a statute, as to what behavior should be prohibited. "Once Congress, exercising its delegated powers, has decided the order of priorities in a given area, it is . . . for the courts to enforce them when enforcement is sought." Hill, 437 U. S., at 194. Courts of equity cannot, in their discretion, reject the balance that Congress has struck in a statute. Id., at 194-195. Their choice (unless there is statutory language to the contrary) is simply whether a particular means of enforcing the statute should be chosen over another permissible
In this case, the Court of Appeals erred by considering relevant the evidence that some people have "serious medical conditions for whom the use of cannabis is necessary in order to treat or alleviate those conditions or their symptoms," that these people "will suffer serious harm if they are denied cannabis," and that "there is no legal alternative to cannabis
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The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
Justice Stevens, with whom Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg join, concurring in the judgment.
Lest the Court's narrow holding be lost in its broad dicta, let me restate it here: "[W]e hold that medical necessity is not a defense to manufacturing and distributing marijuana." Ante, at 494 (emphasis added). This confined holding is consistent with our grant of certiorari, which was limited to the question "[w]hether the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U. S. C. 801 et seq., forecloses a medical necessity defense to the Act's prohibition against manufacturing and distributing marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance." Pet. for Cert. (I) (emphasis added). And, at least with respect to distribution, this holding is consistent with how the issue was raised and litigated below. As stated by the District Court, the question before it was "whether [respondents'] admitted distribution of marijuana for use by seriously
Accordingly, in the lower courts as well as here, respondents have raised the medical necessity defense as a justification for distributing marijuana to cooperative members, and it was in that context that the Ninth Circuit determined that respondents had "a legally cognizable defense." 190 F.3d 1109, 1114 (1999). The Court is surely correct to reverse that determination. Congress' classification of marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance—that is, one that cannot be distributed outside of approved research projects, see 21 U. S. C. §§ 812, 823(f), 829—makes it clear that "the Controlled Substances Act cannot bear a medical necessity defense to distributions of marijuana," ante, at 494 (emphasis added).
Apart from its limited holding, the Court takes two unwarranted and unfortunate excursions that prevent me from joining its opinion. First, the Court reaches beyond its holding, and beyond the facts of the case, by suggesting that the defense of necessity is unavailable for anyone under the
Second, the Court gratuitously casts doubt on "whether necessity can ever be a defense" to any federal statute that does not explicitly provide for it, calling such a defense into question by a misleading reference to its existence as an "open question." Ante, at 490, 491. By contrast, our precedent has expressed no doubt about the viability of the common-law defense, even in the context of federal criminal statutes that do not provide for it in so many words. See, e. g., United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 415 (1980) ("We therefore hold that, where a criminal defendant is charged with escape and claims that he is entitled to an instruction on the theory of duress or necessity, he must proffer evidence of a bona fide effort to surrender or return to custody as soon as the claimed duress or necessity had lost its coercive force"); id., at 416, n. 11 ("Our principal difference with the dissent, therefore, is not as to the existence of such a defense but as to the importance of surrender as an element of it" (emphasis added)). Indeed, the Court's comment on the general availability of the necessity defense is completely unnecessary because the Government has made no such suggestion. Cf. Brief for United States 17-18 (narrowly arguing that necessity defense cannot succeed if legislature has
The overbroad language of the Court's opinion is especially unfortunate given the importance of showing respect for the sovereign States that comprise our Federal Union. That respect imposes a duty on federal courts, whenever possible, to avoid or minimize conflict between federal and state law, particularly in situations in which the citizens of a State have chosen to "serve as a laboratory" in the trial of "novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting). In my view, this is such a case.
An additional point deserves emphasis. This case does not require us to rule on the scope of the District Court's discretion to enjoin, or to refuse to enjoin, the possession of marijuana or other potential violations of the Controlled
I join the Court's judgment of reversal because I agree that a distributor of marijuana does not have a medical necessity defense under the Controlled Substances Act. I do not, however, join the dicta in the Court's opinion.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of California by Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, and David De Alba, Special Assistant Attorney General; for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Steven R. Shapiro, Daniel P. Tokaji, and Jordan C. Budd; for the American Public Health Association et al. by Daniel N. Abrahamson; for the Marijuana Policy Project et al. by Cheryl Flax-Davidson; for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws et al. by R. Keith Stroup, John Wesley Hall, Jr., and Lisa B. Kemler; for Edward Neil Brundridge et al. by Thomas V. Loran III; and for Sheriff Mark N. Dion et al. by Julie M. Carpenter.
Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the California Medical Association et al. by Catherine I. Hanson and Alice P. Mead; and for the Institute on Global Drug Policy of the Drug Free America Foundation et al. by David G. Evans and John E. Lamp.
The United States appealed the District Court's order amending the preliminary injunction. At the Government's request, we stayed the order pending the appeal. 530 U.S. 1298 (2000). The Court of Appeals has postponed oral argument pending our decision in this case.
Finally, we share Justice Stevens' concern for "showing respect for the sovereign States that comprise our Federal Union." Post, at 502 (opinion concurring in judgment). However, we are "construing an Act of Congress, not drafting it." United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 415, n. 11 (1980). Because federal courts interpret, rather than author, the federal criminal code, we are not atliberty to rewrite it. Nor are we passing today on a constitutional question, such as whether the Controlled Substances Act exceeds Congress' power under the Commerce Clause.