A case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday could have huge implications for the ability of states to legalize marijuana.
The case, Christie v. NCAA, centers on whether the Constitution’s anti-commandeering doctrine prevents the federal government from forcing states to keep prohibitions of certain federally- proscribed activities on their own lawbooks.
It began when New Jersey voters approved a 2011 ballot measure to legalize sports gambling. The following year, state lawmakers enacted legislation to regulate and license sports wagering at casinos and racetracks.
But the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and four professional sports leagues sued, alleging that the state law violated a federal statute, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). That law, enacted by Congress in 1992, prohibits states and local governments from licensing or otherwise authorizing betting on amateur or professional team sports. (It exempted prior state gambling schemes, namely the one that exists in Nevada.)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled for the sports leagues in 2013, interpreting PASPA to bar states from affirmatively licensing or permitting sports betting but not necessarily from merely repealing their own state prohibitions on gambling.
The Supreme Court rejected New Jersey’s request to hear the case on appeal, so the state enacted a new law that deleted its own prohibitions on certain gambling activities without enacting a new authorization or licensing scheme to regulate betting.
The leagues filed suit again, against the narrower revised law. Once more, the Third Circuit agreed, ruling in 2016 that PASPA prevents states from repealing their own sports gambling prohibitions in addition to blocking them from affirmatively licensing the activity.
The court essentially ruled that the Constitution’s anti-commandeering doctrine only prohibits the federal government from compelling states to adopt and enforce new policies and “does not command states to take any affirmative actions.” In this way, the court reasoned, it’s constitutional for the federal government to block states from amending policies they had previously adopted.
New Jersey appealed the case again, and this time the Supreme Court agreed to hear it. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday morning and, although the statute in question concerns gambling, the outcome of the case could potentially throw up a huge roadblock to future state marijuana legalization efforts.
If the high court agrees with the Third Circuit, “the federal government may be able to regulate other areas like recreational marijuana…by freezing existing state laws in place, instead of through direct federal regulation,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Sam Kamin, who serves as the Vicente Sederberg Professor of Marijuana Law and Policy at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, filed an amicus brief in the case along with other law professors, arguing that the Supreme Court should rule in favor of New Jersey. He told Marijuana Moment that the Third Circuit’s ruling is “shockingly wrong.”
“If the federal government can make the states pass laws, or keep laws that its citizens hate on the books, the core promise of anti-commandeering is a lie,” he said. “The point is that the citizens should be able to express their views through their state governments and should be able to remove those elected officials who are not working on their behalf. When the federal government meddles in this process, it muddies the waters and stifles the will of the voters.”
That said, if the Supreme Court rules for the sports leagues in favor of the federal gambling law’s broad reach, it wouldn’t automatically invalidate state marijuana laws. Rather, Congress would then be empowered to pass a new law, broader than the current Controlled Substances Act (CSA), that requires states to keep cannabis prohibitions on the books.
Under the CSA as currently written, Congress specifically says it doesn’t intend to “occupy the field” when it comes to drug policies, “including criminal penalties, to the exclusion of any State law on the same subject matter which would otherwise be within the authority of the State…” Instead, the CSA only seeks to preempt state laws that are so inconsistent with its provisions that the two cannot stand together.
Legalization supporters will likely take comfort that in the current political climate — in which a growing number of states are ending prohibition and polls continue to show growing bipartisan voter support for reform — it would be difficult for congressional marijuana opponents to form a majority of lawmakers in support of a new affirmative prohibition to punish states that dare to enact popular cannabis laws.
(That’s of course separate from the issue of congressional leadership blocking measures to reform current federal marijuana laws, an issue which has become more prominent as the House Rules Committee, for example, has repeatedly prevented cannabis amendments from being considered on the floor over the course of the past year.)
It is more than a little ironic that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), an ardent and vocal legalization opponent, is bringing a case in defense of states’ rights to enact their own laws which could have implications for cannabis policy.
During the course of his failed presidential campaign last year, Christie consistently pledged that if elected he would enforce federal marijuana prohibition even in states that have opted to legalize the drugs.
But in New Jersey’s petition asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, the state makes a point to raise concern about the case’s potential to block state marijuana reforms.
“If Congress can freeze in place existing state laws by prohibiting contrary state-law ‘authorizations,’ then the federal government can effectively force States to enact federal policies and thus will have greatly aggrandized its own power while foisting accountability for those policies entirely onto the States. Future efforts by States to legalize private conduct currently prohibited by state law—anything from recreational use of marijuana, to carrying concealed firearms, to working on Sundays—can be thwarted not just by a direct federally enforced prohibition of that conduct, but now also by a federal ban on state legislation that ‘authorizes’ such conduct. This is not a minor intrusion on state sovereignty. It is a sea change to our system of federalism. This Court should grant the petition to protect the Constitution’s carefully calibrated federal-state design and restore the balance between state and federal power that the Third Circuit’s decision has so thoroughly upended.”
“If the Third Circuit’s construction of ‘authoriz[ation] by law’ in PASPA as forbidding an undefined array of repeals is upheld, it is not difficult to imagine other examples in which Congress could dictate policy outcomes in States without ever having to legislate directly. Rather than enact gun control measures of its own, for example, Congress could prohibit States from relaxing existing restrictions on the purchase of firearms by particular persons. Or, no longer willing to expend the resources to police limitations on the usage of marijuana, Congress could repeal its own prohibitions on the use and sale of marijuana and instead prohibit States from repealing their own restrictions by enacting a PASPA-like law that prohibits States from authorizing the sale or use of marijuana ‘by law.’ Because few States would accept the choice of having totally unregulated gun possession or marijuana usage, Congress could achieve its policy objectives of stopping the spread of firearms or marijuana use even as it sets up the federal government’s own exit from those fields of regulation.”
The Trump administration, in a brief from its acting solicitor general filed in May, urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case.
A decision is expected sometime before next summer.
New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say
New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.
“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”
— Brian Thompson (@brian4NY) November 18, 2019
“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.
The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”
“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”
I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.
Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.
As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 18, 2019
“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.
BREAKING: New Jersey State Senate abandons push to legalize marijuana during 'lame duck' session.
The marijuana industry outspent SAM 86-1 in this effort.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/MPtI2fNIzx
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 18, 2019
While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.
It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.
During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.
Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:
This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.
Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash
As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals
One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.
The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”
Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below:
Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.
Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.
Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.
Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.
He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.
Marijuana should be legal nationwide. It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist. https://t.co/0Uhl17MW98
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) November 18, 2019
“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.
Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.
Get with the program, @JoeBiden.
Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.
The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It's past time we end this senseless prohibition.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 18, 2019
“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”
“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.
The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.
There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.
But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.