A week ago the Trump administration rescinded a series of Obama administration memos instructing federal prosecutors to back off enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized it, sending legal pot businesses into a dither, including those in Nevada.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state law clashes with federal drug law. Justice Department officials said the previous administration’s stance allowed states to flout federal law.
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt sent out an email saying his office is reviewing the change in the Justice Department’s stance on federal pot law enforcement and evaluating the ramifications for the state.
“Although I opposed the Question 2 ballot initiative proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana in Nevada, I also pledged to defend the measure were it approved by the voters,” Laxalt stated. “Since Questions 2’s enactment, my office has vigorously defended it against two related lawsuits that threatened to slow or even halt the implementation of the law, and has further assisted with the formulation and adoption of regulations to allow dispensaries to commence sales of recreational marijuana within just six months of the law’s enactment. My office has expeditiously facilitated the implementation of the law in the face of considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity.”
We suggest that the state’s attorney do what attorneys do: Sue.
The states aren’t flouting federal law, Congress is flouting the Constitution. If it took a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to make alcohol illegal during Prohibition, the same should be true for marijuana.
The 10th Amendment clearly states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Nowhere does the Constitution grant that power to Congress.
In fact, the divided Supreme Court decision upholding Congress’ power to ban marijuana is an absurdity constructed from a fatuity and makes a mockery of the principles of federalism.
In the case of Gonzales v. Raich, the high court found that Congress had the power under the Commerce Clause to prohibit a person from growing marijuana for her own consumption because it could affect interstate commerce. The court cited as precedent the New Deal-era case of Wickard v. Filburn, which said a farmer who grew wheat for his own consumption affected interstate commerce because, if he had not done so, he would’ve had to purchase wheat, thus affecting the market and price for wheat.
Thus the court essentially erased any distinction between interstate and intrastate commerce or even no commerce at all. Whatever the imagination can conjure.
In his dissent in the pot case, Justice Clarence Thomas fumed, “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.”
Thomas added, “This makes a mockery of (James) Madison’s assurance (in Federalist Paper No. 45) to the people of New York that the ‘powers delegated’ to the Federal Government are ‘few and defined,’ while those of the States are ‘numerous and indefinite.’”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor also raised the issue of federalism, writing in dissent in Raich, “Relying on Congress’ abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California’s experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case.”
With the court now more originalist in its composition, the arguments of Thomas and O’Connor might hold sway in a constitutional challenge of the federal marijuana law, should Laxalt and the attorneys general of the states that have legalized pot press the matter.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.