The Supreme Court recently ruled that federal marijuana laws trump state laws, so if a state like California or Oregon passes a law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal use, federal agents can thumb their collective noses at the state laws and arrest the medicinal pot-user for violating federal laws.
When I first heard the Supreme Court decision announced on the radio, I nodded my head and agreed with the decision. After all, federal laws do trump state laws. That’s how our system works. But later I read more about the actual case and the judges’ arguments, both pro and con. Armed with real knowledge rather than sound bites, my thoughts on the decision changed.
There are currently eleven states that have medical marijuana laws: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona is unlike the other states in that it doesn’t have a process in place to handle medical marijuana. These laws have either been passed by the state legislature, or were initiatives passed by the voice of the people.
Starting in 2001, federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers started to raid and arrest people in California who had been granted marijuana by doctors. Angel Raich was arrested because she had marijuana to treat her brain cancer, and she sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, arguing that the Federal Government had no right to prosecute in this state issue. Federal attorneys argued that the Federal Government did have authority to override state laws. And six of the nine Supreme Court Justices agreed with the federal lawyers.
Now that we know a bit more about the argument behind the case, we have reached the crux of the matter — when the state and federal laws are in conflict, which one has priority? The answer is simple — the federal laws trump the state laws when there is a conflict. But there is one important hurdle that must be crossed by the federal laws before they can push the state laws aside — the Constitution must grant some branch of the Federal Government power and authority over that issue. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution outlines the powers of the Congress and what they may make laws about. Go read that part of the Constitution and find the part that grants the Federal Government the right and authority to trump the states’ medical marijuana laws. Go ahead and read it. It’s only 416 words long. I’ll wait here.
Done? Good. Did you find the part that grants the feds the right to snub the states’ medical marijuana laws? You probably missed it because it doesn’t appear to apply the first time you read it. The key part is known as the Commerce Clause, which reads, “To regulate Commerce … among the several States…” You may ask yourself, “Self, what does Joe Sickly getting marijuana seeds from his doctor, growing some plants for himself, and smoking it at home have to do with interstate commerce?” After all, at no point do money or goods flow across any state lines, and isn’t that what interstate commerce is supposed to be? You may think that, but such a simplistic definition just won’t do if you are one of the six learned masters of the law who sit on the Supreme Court bench and who ruled against Angel Raich.
The majority of the Supreme Court justices in their combined wisdom declared that because Joe Sickly is growing his own weed, he is affecting — by not spending money — the illegal drug dealers who grow and transport marijuana across state lines. So the six in robes said that Joe Sickly’s home-grown leaf is affecting interstate commerce. By this logic, I could claim that my working in one state affects every employer in every other state because I am not working for them. With convoluted logic like this in place, there is no limit to any aspect of your daily life that the Federal Government could not legislate and control.
If the Commerce Clause can be twisted to grant the Federal Government power and authority over something as truly “home-grown” as medical marijuana, then we no longer have fifty states and the old concept of federalism has vanished. The Federal Government could justify writing and enforcing any law about any aspect of our lives, and the Supreme Court could support the federal laws because of a warped reading of the Commerce Clause. If this is the way the U.S. runs now, we have one monolithic Federal Government that can govern every aspect of our lives, and the fifty states are nothing more than dotted boundary lines with no authority any more. This would also mean that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have been nullified by the Federal Government. Federalism has died, and we have a single centralized government that controls all.
Justice Clarence Thomas spots the monster loophole of the Commerce Clause in his dissenting statement:
Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.
I’ll say it again — we need judges who will judge the law as it is written. We need judges who will not create new and expanded definitions of the phrase “interstate commerce.” We don’t need judges who look to international consensus to tell us what the U.S. Constitution means. We need judges who will look at the Constitution as a document that means what it says, and not what it can be twisted into saying.