It may be surprising, but no state is required to have a law making possession of marijuana, or any drug, a crime. Therefore, any state can legalize some or all marijuana possession if it chooses. The federal government, if it chooses, can enforce the federal law against its possession and use, but it is up to each state to decide what to criminally prohibit, based on the 10th Amendment.
This basic insight has been lost in the public discussion about whether the initiatives legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana passed by Colorado and Washington voters in November are preempted by federal law. The two states will soon finalize regulations to implement those initiatives, including how to tax and regulate marijuana.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. told a recent meeting of state attorneys general that the Justice Department review of the initiatives was winding down, suggesting an imminent decision as to whether it intends to challenge the initiatives as being preempted by federal law.
This month, eight former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration urged Holder to enjoin the new state laws. Peter Bensinger, DEA chief from 1976 to 1981, told the Associated Press: “This is a no-brainer. It is outrageous that a lawsuit hasn’t been filed.”
Is it outrageous? Or is it just an intelligent assessment of the legal landscape?
The preemption doctrine is based on the supremacy clause of Article VI of the Constitution, which makes federal law “the supreme law of the land” trumping conflicting state laws. The question, then, is whether there is a conflict between the federal government prohibiting small amounts of marijuana and some states not doing so.
There is not a conflict when one level of government prohibits something but another level of government does not. An easy illustration is that murder is a crime in every state, but, except for very specific circumstances, it is not a federal crime. No one would say that there is a conflict. Likewise, a state can decide that certain conduct does not violate state law even if it offends federal law. It is then for the federal government to decide how, if at all, it wants to enforce the federal law.
Several other states, including California, have laws making possession of up to an ounce of marijuana an infraction punishable by a fine, even though under federal law, it’s a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in federal prison. Similarly, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have laws that allow possession of marijuana for medical purposes; there is no such federal exception. Although the federal government can enforce the stricter U.S. law in states that have decriminalized possession or have medical marijuana laws, it has never acted to have those state laws invalidated based on the preemption doctrine.
Simply put, no state has to have a law prohibiting marijuana, even though federal law does. And if a state does have such a ban but wants to repeal it in whole or in part, such as for possession for medical reasons or for small amounts, it may do so.
Because states could remove all criminal sanctions for marijuana, this more limited removal of some state sanctions cannot be preempted, claiming a conflict with federal law. It is true that Colorado and Washington go further than allowing possession of small amounts of marijuana under state law; their new laws also regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. But this actually helps achieve the federal objective of controlling marijuana compared to a state decriminalizing marijuana without regulating its distribution.
Beyond the legal arguments, there are policy reasons for the federal government to not interfere with the Colorado and Washington laws. An important feature of federalism is that states are empowered to serve as laboratories for experimentation with social policies. As the nation embarks on perhaps the most significant public debate about drug policy since President Nixon declared the war on drugs, Washington and Colorado’s experiment should be allowed to go forward. The country can then assess whether it succeeded or failed.
Let’s hope Holder’s response will be more nuanced and respectful of the states than that urged by the retired drug warriors.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. Allen Hopper is criminal justice and drug policy director of the ACLU of California.