Medical Marijuana, Federalism and the Forbidden Fruit of the Constitution

In light of the DeMint bill to strip Berkeley of its federal funding, this earlier column on the hypocrisy in Congress over federalism may be of interest:

Even in a city where cross-dressing is a protected right–if not a cherished tradition–San Francisco leaders have turned heads recently by appearing publicly in a new type of trans-political apparel. Members of the ultraliberal San Francisco City Council have suddenly taken on states’ rights–normally a conservative stance–as their cause celebre.

Their opponent is none other than ultraconservative Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft–normally a states’ rights advocate–who is asserting the supremacy of the federal government.

At issue is the desire of California citizens to allow seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana to relieve their pain and discomfort. Advocates in San Francisco have proposed a program in which the city government itself would grow and distribute medical marijuana; a November ballot measure is planned. If San Francisco voters approve the measure, a major confrontation over states’ rights will be triggered and may prove to be one of the most significant federalism cases in decades.Federalism protects the states from the encroachment of the federal government, leaving the primary decisions of government to the individual states. It is a principle based on the idea that power is safest when held closest to the people. Under our system, each state is allowed to try what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described as “novel social and economic experiments” in solving contemporary problems.

Federalism is often wrongly seen as a Republican or conservative position. Liberals have long considered the federal government to be more enlightened than the states. For example, during desegregation, federal courts and Congress proved far more protective and active in the area of equal rights. As a result, liberals have often rallied in opposition to federalism to the same degree that conservatives have rallied around it.

Both conservatives and liberals now face a quandary. While liberals were once happy to see the federal government shape state policies in its own image, they are less enthusiastic now that the image is that of Ashcroft.In California, advocates found themselves arguing for the use of medical marijuana to a man who does not smoke, drink or dance and who probably viewed the 1936 movie “Reefer Madness” as a medical documentary.

Liberals have suddenly discovered federalism and the right of state self-determination. While conservatives have long defended states’ rights, they now face states that want to experiment with gay marriages, medical marijuana and assisted suicide. Accordingly, conservatives have suddenly discovered the need for uniform federal laws in traditional state areas.The controversy over medical marijuana has less to do with pot than it does principle.

August 2002 – Los Angeles Times

Jonathan Turley

5 thoughts on “Medical Marijuana, Federalism and the Forbidden Fruit of the Constitution”

  1. I suspect that the latest compromise regarding state banking regulation in the midst of pressure for financial reform in Washington points to the influence of large corporations on the Congress as a culprit in the on-going eclipse of federalism. Pls see my blog if interested. Thanks.

  2. An interesting and accurate observation is made above.

    In the fifties and sixties liberals used anti-federalist measures to bring liberal principles into benighted conservative enclaves at the state level.

    In the 2000’s conservatives use anti-federalist measures to bring conservative principles into enlightened liberal enclaves at the local level.

    Same switch seen with the national parties’ attitude toward civil rights, due process, and a host of other such issues.

    Whoever is in the wheelhouse steers the boat their way. “Damn the principles, full speed ahead.”

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