by Byron Andrus, NORML Foundation legal intern and second year law student at George Mason University School of Law

Recently, NORML supported the efforts of Congressmen Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) in their sponsorship of H.R. 2306, ‘Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011’, a House bill which seeks to remove federal penalties for marijuana offenses and thus allow for the individual states to set their own marijuana policies. While the bill will likely fail to reach even a committee hearing due to the efforts of another Texas Republican and Judiciary Committee Chairman, Lamar Smith, its introduction has raised some interesting constitutional questions and has given more food for thought to legal scholars interested in the oft-forgotten 10th Amendment.

The 10th Amendment reads rather plainly: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Essentially, this means that the powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution, which are very limited in number, are left to the state legislatures. This may seem obvious, but judges and constitutional scholars have continuously debated about what “the powers not delegated to the United States” are.

Controversially, the power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce granted to it by Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that the feds may regulate nearly anything that has an effect on interstate commerce. In the landmark case of Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman who grew marijuana plants on her property for her own medical use was participating in “interstate commerce.” Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, astutely observes, “no evidence from the founding suggests that “commerce” included the mere possession of a good or some personal activity that did not involve trade or exchange for value. In the early days of the republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana.” This common sense reading of “interstate commerce” would prevent the federal government from harassing peaceful citizens who are in compliance with state laws, and is a good example of a “10th Amendment” approach to the issue of marijuana legalization.

The Founding Fathers took great pains to choose carefully the words they inserted into the text of the Constitution. Nowhere in the document is the federal government granted the power to regulate intrastate commerce (commerce within one state). Furthermore, “commerce” refers to transactions in which goods or services are exchanged. Ms. Raich did not intend to buy, sell, trade, or give away her marijuana, she only intended it to be used for her own medical purposes—despite this and the clear omission by the founders of a federal primacy regarding states’ economies under the 10th Amendment. The real world application of the Gonzales decision means that those with serious illnesses like Ms. Raich are not legally permitted to grow and consume their own medicine—even if state laws allow for such.

The Commerce Clause has also been invoked when armed federal agents decide to raid dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legally permitted to be sold. The latest memo from the Department of Justice, known as the ‘Cole Memo’, suggests that the federal government will continue to raid dispensaries, even ones that are operating in accordance with state laws. This contradicted a 2009 memo written by the former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, in which he suggested that federal resources should not be wasted on marijuana enforcement as long as dispensary owners remained in “clear and unambiguous” compliance with state law. This reversal in policy now suggests that the federal government can target those involved in the medical marijuana industry, even those in compliance with state law.

In addition to the constant threat of arrest and prosecution, the potential loss of one’s business creates a great deal of uncertainty in the markets of states where medical marijuana is legal. Investing in a dispensary has become a risky proposition, and it has led to dispensary owners already heavily invested in the business to wonder whether or not they will be able to open their doors. This uncertainty causes patients to go without their medicine and causes business owners to flounder under unclear regulations. Removing the federal penalties for marijuana offenses by passing H.R. 2306 would completely eliminate this problem, as patients and business owners would simply need to comply with state laws, no longer having to worry about getting their doors kicked in by federal agents. A “10th Amendment” approach to marijuana policy would finally ease the fear and uncertainty that are part and parcel of federal Marijuana Prohibition.

An expansive reading of the federal government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce seems to be at odds with the 10th Amendment. Since the federal government may not regulate intrastate commerce, it follows that this is a right reserved to the states. The division of powers in our federal system was intended to prevent an overreach of federal power. Unfortunately, the ever-expanding federal government now sees fit to regulate everything from the amount of water you can have in your toilet to what kind of light bulbs consumers can buy to what plants you may grow on your property—the laws of the states be damned if necessary.

H.R. 2306 puts forth the common sense proposition, consistent with the 10th Amendment, that it should be the prerogative of each state to determine for itself whether or not to legalize marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes—a tried and true, and constitutionally sound approach that previously worked to end the folly of another federal government overreach, Alcohol Prohibition. A return by federal judges to interpreting the plain meaning of “interstate commerce,” coupled with an emphasis on the 10th Amendment, would mark an excellent starting point in getting the federal government out of the way and allowing state governments to make their own informed decisions on marijuana policy.