March 22, 2016
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up a challenge to Colorado’s voter-approved law legalizing recreational marijuana, but the legal question the case raises can’t be ignored indefinitely. The question is as old as the republic: How far can states go in substituting their own laws for those of the federal government? The issue of marijuana raises that question now. In the past it has been raised by the issues of tariffs, slavery and desegregation, and in the future it could come up in relation to anything from abortion to immigration.
The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma asked the court to overturn Colorado’s four-year-old law, claiming that it imposed costs on their law-enforcement systems. The lawsuit described the emergence of a $100 million marijuana industry in a neighboring state, and argued that “If this entity were based south of our border, the federal government would prosecute it as a drug cartel.”
Instead, the federal government has turned a nearsighted, if not quite blind, eye toward Colorado’s law, along with similar laws in Oregon, Alaska, Washington state and the District of Columbia. The federal government also has largely looked away from the more narrow laws in 22 states legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is categorized as a drug whose possession and use is prohibited under all circumstances.
The federal classification of marijuana is foolish, destructive and should be changed — but it’s still the law, and like other laws, foolish or wise, it is meant to be obeyed. Yet the U.S. Justice Department has told prosecutors to ignore state legalization laws, as long as marijuana possession, use and sale remain within a set of guidelines. Federal authorities will step in, for instance, to prevent interstate commerce in marijuana, or to keep the drug out of the hands of children. Within those guidelines, just about anything goes, as Oregonians can see from the proliferation of pot products and retailers.
The Justice Department’s permissive approach avoids a confrontation over the limits of state and federal authority. Such confrontations have occurred in the past. The friction goes back to the nation’s founding, when it was the states, not a federal government, that dissolved the colonies’ ties to the British crown and ratified the U.S. Constitution. In the early 19th century, advocates of state supremacy argued that states have the right to secede in response to what they perceived as federal overreach — a position that led to the Civil War. Figures ranging from John Calhoun to George Wallace have advanced variants of that idea, claiming that states have the power to nullify federal laws with which they disagree.
Advocates of marijuana legalization have not argued for nullification. So far the Justice Department, and now the Supreme Court, have sidestepped the question of whether nullification has occurred. But marijuana legalization laws such as Oregon’s can’t be squared with the federal Controlled Substances Act, and as a practical matter, the state laws have been allowed to prevail. Someone, somewhere, is bound to point to this as establishing a precedent for states’ right to set aside other federal laws.
If Oregon can legalize marijuana in defiance of federal law, why can’t other states make their own rules regarding health care, the environment or civil rights? It’s regrettable that the Supreme Court decided against hearing a case that raised such questions, because they are inherent in any state law legalizing marijuana — and, perhaps soon, in other state laws that openly conflict with federal law.