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.
People With Marijuana Convictions Should Know About National Expungement Week
Marijuana legalization is a solid first step, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to resolve socioeconomic and racial inequities brought about by the war on drugs.
Hence, we now have National Expungement Week. The first-of-its-kind campaign, supported by a coalition of cannabis and social justice organizations called the Equity First Alliance, is taking place from October 20-27.
The organizations will offer “expungement and other forms of legal relief to some of the 77 million Americans with convictions on their records,” according to the campaign website. “These convictions can restrict access to housing, employment, education, public assistance, and voting rights long after sentences have been served.”
In an open letter, the alliance also said it was “largely unsupported by the cannabis industry and by the traditional funders of equity work.” While a main argument in support of legalization is that it would help to repair drug war damages, which have disproportionately affected communities of color, the laws and markets created by the successful movement haven’t necessarily lived up to its name, the alliance wrote.
To that end, the campaign has organized events across the country—from Los Angeles to Boston—to provide legal services to those whose criminal records are able to be reduced or expunged. You can check out the full list of events here.
The alliance’s agenda touches on numerous reform policies, including using marijuana tax revenue to fund communities that have been impacted by prohibition, implementing social equity programs, ensuring corporate responsibility for businesses that profit off cannabis and providing affordable medical cannabis for low-income patients, among other policies.
“We believe that we have a short but vital window of opportunity to change the course of the cannabis industry—and by doing so, we can prevent further harms to the most impacted communities and create a model of reparative economic and criminal justice.”
Adam Vine, co-founder of Cafe-Free Cannabis and an organizer with the campaign, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign is necessary “because millions of Americans have been harmed by the war on drugs and continue to face collateral consequences for convictions that may have happened years ago.”
“These consequences restrict people’s access to employment, housing, education, and social services, so our coalition decided to do something about it,” he said. “We are coordinating these events to provide free legal relief and to say that as states move towards cannabis legalization, expungement needs to be the first priority.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Chris Christie Finally Recognizes Marijuana Legalization As States’ Rights Issue
Famously anti-marijuana former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) isn’t jumping on the pro-legalization train any time soon—but new comments suggest he might be softening his opposition a smidge, recognizing marijuana reform as a states’ rights issue.
Speaking at Politicon on Saturday, Christie took a question about his cannabis stance from YouTuber Kyle Kulinski, who asked him to weigh in on studies showing that states with legal marijuana programs experience lower rates of opioid addiction and overdoses compared to non-legal states. He was quick to dismiss the research, contending that other studies show the “exact opposite.”
“I just don’t believe when we’re in the midst of a drug addiction crisis that we need to legalize another drug,” Christie said, echoing comments he’s made as chair of President Donald Trump’s opioids committee.
Then he pivoted, acknowledging that some will push back on his anti-legalization position by pointing out that alcohol is legal. “I get that,” he said, “but I wasn’t here when we legalized alcohol.”
Kulinski seized on that point and asked the former governor if he’d vote to ban alcohol.
“No, I wouldn’t ban it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s a big, important argument about marijuana because once you legalize this, that toothpaste never goes back in the tube.”
Christie stood out among other Republican and Democratic contenders during his 2016 presidential run by maintaining that in addition to personally opposing legalization, he’d crack down on legal cannabis states and enforce federal laws nationwide if elected.
“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” Christie said in 2015. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”
So it came as something of a surprise when the former governor went on to say in the Politicon appearance that “states have the right to do what they want to do on this,” signaling a modest shift in his anti-marijuana rhetoric. States should have that right even though, as Christie put it, “broad legalization of marijuana won’t, in my view, alleviate or even minimize the opioid crisis.”
It’s unclear what’s behind the apparent shift from hardline prohibitionist to wary federalist, but who knows… maybe Christie experienced an epiphany at a Melissa Etheridge concert he attended earlier this month.
Etheridge, who recently spoke with Marijuana Moment about her cannabis advocacy and use of the drug for medicinal purposes, reacted to a tweet showing Christie at one of her recent performances, where he reportedly knew every word of her songs and sang along.
— Melissa Etheridge (@metheridge) October 6, 2018
Christie, for his part, replied that he “enjoyed every minute of a great performance and a truly wonderful group of fans.”
And enjoyed every minute of a great performance and a truly wonderful group of fans https://t.co/TQdJ8fzkTM
— Governor Christie (@GovChristie) October 6, 2018
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Marijuana Support Grows: Two Out Of Three Americans Back Legalization, Gallup Says
Two-thirds of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the highest percentage ever in Gallup’s ongoing decades-long series of national polls on the topic.
The new survey released on Monday shows that U.S. adults back ending cannabis prohibition by a supermajority margin of 66 percent to 32 percent. That’s more than a two-to-one ratio.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.