When Laws Collide

Posted on June 10, 2005
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What happens when state law conflicts with federal law? The U.S. Supreme Court considered that issue this week in a case involving a California law that permits the use of medicinal marijuana; a federal law bans the practice.

Fundamentally, the case is not about medicinal marijuana. At stake is the critical principle of federalism, enshrined in the Constitution as a check on the power of the federal government. In this case, however, the court ruled that the Commerce Clause gives the federal government power to encroach on what Justice Thomas calls "states' traditional police powers to define the criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens."

Justice Thomas explains in his dissent, "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."

That should be of concern to Arizona voters, who have twice approved laws similar to California's. Arizona's own Justice O'Connor writes, "If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative But whatever the wisdom of California's experiment the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case."

Perhaps Sen. Barry Goldwater put it best when he said, "Neither of our two parties maintains a meaningful commitment to the principles of states' rights. Thus, the cornerstone of the republic, our chief bulwark against the encroachment of individual freedom by big government, is fast disappearing Nothing could so far advance the cause of freedom as for the federal government to withdraw promptly and totally from every jurisdiction which the Constitution reserved to the states."

Key Links:
-U.S. Supreme Court opinions in Gonzales v. Raich
-U.S. Constitution: Commerce Clause
- National Review analysis
-William F. Buckley Jr.: The Court on High

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