How would the federal government block state legislation that contradicts federal law?

There is talk of the federal government suing to block recent state Marijuana legalization measures.

Typically (IMO) of news stories nowadays the article does not mention what kind of federal powers, or legal basis, could be used to “sue” the states over these laws. Though it seems to imply it may be the taxation and regulation by the state that would be the basis for any action.

I thought the only way the federal government could directly overrule state law was by the supreme court finding it unconstitutional. And all they could do otherwise was threaten to take away federal funding (e.g. cutting federal highway funding if a states DUI limit is above the federal standard).

Article V of the US Constitution establishes that the Constitution and federal laws enacted under it are supreme over state laws. State laws cannot trespass on areas that are reserved by the Constitution to the federal government, nor can they be in conflict with federal laws. If there is a conflict, the doctrine of federal pre-emption comes into play, rendering the state law inoperative.

Any federal or state court can apply these principles in a lawsuit; it’s not just the Supreme Court which has the power to hold a state law unconstitutional or pre-empted.

In this case, I would presume that the Federal government would claim that the state in question is interfering with interstate commerce.


Supremacy Clause/pre-emption was what immediately sprang to my mind as well. I know next to nothing about this area of law, but I don’t really see how it could work. Lots of things that are forbidden under Federal law are permitted under State law; there’s certainly no requirement that the two walk in step. And, outside of the Commerce Clause, this sort of thing is more traditionally associated with the States.

I don’t even begin to see a Commerce Clause challenge, though we do have *Gonzales v. Raich *to tell us that the Feds are quite welcome to bust you for your ounce if they are so inclined.

Practically, though, in this matter the Federal government doesn’t have the resources to enforce Federal law if the state really is set on not helping them enforce it. I find it difficult to see how the Federal government winning the aforementioned lawsuit will make it any more possible for them to physically enforce the laws without the help of state and local police forces.

Another point is that, under a Common Law system, things are legal unless and until there is a law saying they’re illegal. So even if the law that says marijuana is legal is struck down, that doesn’t mean there is automatically going to be a state law that says marijuana is illegal. Couple that with the aforementioned lack of will to investigate and prosecute marijuana offenses at the state and local level and all you’re left with is Federal laws to be enforced by inadequate Federal resources.

In practice, it comes down to enforcement, and in some cases, Supreme court rulings.

Back in the 70’s, Ann Arbor enforced a small fine to be caught smoking marijuana. If the city cops busted you, well, you got what looked a lot like a parking ticket (or so I heard, since I never got one myself). However, if state cops happened to bust you, they could do so under the state law, and you could go to prison.

Regarding state laws that contradict federal ones, unless the state law is challenged in some case, and is struck down (by a state court, or the Supreme Court), it stands, even though it’s contradictory.

I don’t see how the legalization amendments contradict federal laws. Don’t they just void state laws that made possession illegal?

Back in the early 2000’s, DEA intervened in California. While it was largely reported in the media that “little old ladies with glaucoma” were being targeted, this was really just sensational journalism (I worked for DEA at the time). In general, DEA’s position was that even if the production/sale/purchase/possession of marijuana was no longer explicitly verboten by CA state law, it still constituted a violation of Federal law. So efforts were made to shut down producers and retailers. Normally, there is an unofficial policy established by the AG in each jurisdiction determining what the applicable quantity justifying Federal prosecution is (much higher in some jurisdictions than others, mostly depending by priority - if heroin is your biggest problem, you kind of don’t give a damn about weed). Anything below that threshold is typically referred for state prosecution.

The bottom line is that (IMHO), states decriminalizing something banned by Federal law is evidence of a state acting like a cranky/rebellious child. If you want something decriminalized (much different than legalized, btw), your best bet is to write your Congress creature. In part, as alluded to in a previous post, because there’s now way that the substance legal to purchase in one state isn’t making its way into others (likely in violation of the interstate commerce clause).

One sort of side-note to this is that the Feds do have some low-level policing power associated with public land. Someone in compliance with their state’s medical marijuana law can still get a ticket if they’re caught on National Forest land or some other sort of federally-owned land by a park ranger, game warden, or some other federal law enforcement. A lot of the western states that have medical marijuana also have huge swaths of federally-owned land, so it does come up fairly regularly.

I imagine it’s going to become a much bigger issue in Washington and Colorado if people think they’re in the clear in the whole state, but don’t realize most of their prime camping destinations put them at risk. Maybe state parks will become more popular, though!

I am sure US law dopers would correct ne if I am wrong, but would not the proper procedure be to apply for an injunction from the United States District Court for that region?

This is the linkthat I meant to include in my previous post. PDF warning.

I think the federal government’s concern isn’t with simple possession, but with the parts of the new law that require the Liquor Control Board to regulate and license growers, distributors, and sellers of marijuana. Essentially, the law, as established in the referendum, requires the state to violate the Controlled Substances Act.

Exactly. If the law basically says “X is not illegal” then that really means “There is no state law against X”. That does not change federal law; the problem is, whether non-federal Law enforcement bothers to enforce the federal law.

As for prosecuting someone for running a state-licensed shop selling state-sanctioned merchandise, because it is still illegal federally… not that I want to start ***another ***jury nullification thread, but basically the feds not only have to bust the operation, and initiate prosecution, but they have to get that pesky group of his peers to agree that doing what the state permits should give the defendant 10 years in prison. This is how laws come to be ignored.

I am not Lawyer, but in Romer v. Evans, a state court action was filed to enjoin enforcement of a CO state Constitutional AM. On Certiorari from the CO SC, the US SC struck down the AM.

It dealt with an alleged violation of the 14th AM, as state courts are not divested of entertaining federal complaints, for the most part.

No doubt though an action would be filed in Federal Court seeking a Declaratory Judgment under the federal DJA that it violates federal law, and also seeking an Injunction to halt it’s application.

I first looked in a case, Younger v. Harris, to see if there was any clue there. It deals with federal intervention in a state criminal prosecution.
While intervention is a possibilty, it is rare. I did not see any case references in Harris to what we are describing though.

In an Ohio case I have in my notes, to enjoin a state law from being enforced, an Original action in Mandamus was filed.

Injunctive relief or Mandamus, depends on the state, if filed in state court that is.

Just to expand on lawbuff’s point, the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, para. 2), provides:

Since state courts are required to apply the Constitution, and they have jurisdiction over state governments and officials, there could be an application in the state courts to the effect that a state law conflicts with the US Constitution or a federal law, and to enjoin state agents accordingly.

However, I would assume that the federal government would normally bring the application in the federal courts, not in the state courts.

This. Although the feds can’t force the Colorado authorities to arrest people for possessing marijuana, they can go to court to prohibit the state from affirmatively participating in a conspiracy to violate federal law by collecting state taxes and the like on the sale of something in violation of federal law.

I was thinking that this lawsuit was a question of trying to “persuade” Colorado to enforce federal drug laws. That is, to get the local police and whoever to enforce the law because the feds don’t really have the manpower for that. So, in exchange for dropping the lawsuit and perhaps some other stuff, Colorado would have to agree to keep prosecuting drug offenses.

But now that I know there’s a state licensing board involved, that complicates things. I’m pretty sure that the Feds can shut those down as easily as they could shut down a state’s counterfeit money production bureau. The question would be what happens after that. Does Colorado keep the marijuana and get rid of the regulation, or do they just go back to how things were before. That I don’t know.

I’m thinking this case might make it to the Supremes.
ETA: Ignore this, I thought we were in a different forum. Warning: There are no facts in this post.

Is the US not in violation of the the constitution ? Things like healthcare , social security , crime , businesses tax , drug laws so on not state matter?

I thought the founding fathers wanted the Feds to deal with trade ,immigrants and military defence only and things like abortion , LGBT , healthcare , social security and crime be state matter?

But than would laws like healthcare , social security , drug laws , businesses tax and FDA be in violation of the constitution or what the founding fathers wanted?

What has happan to constitution than or has it been changed? Many states still have their own laws.Some states really tough on crime and other states bit softer on crime.

Health care, in case you have been living under a rock, was legal due to it being a tax. Congress can levy taxes.

IIRC, the marijuana laws, including those against growing it, are a stretch of the interstate commerce clause - the feds succesfully (unlike health care) argued that interstate commerce should apply, allowing them to regulate or forbid a private grow-op rooted in soil in one state, because the plants could eventually make their way into interstate commerce.

They might successfully enjoin the state from setting up boards, on teh ground that that involves conspiring to violate trafficking laws.

However, they can’t force a state to have its own laws against pot possesion, for example - all they can do is (try to) enforce federal laws.

It would be a fascinating situation if the SCOTUS decided that they were wrong, clean up the interstate commerce rulings, revisit the right of the feds to regulate pot possession (and by extension, anything) within a state.

So than what if some states what Health care and other states don’t ? Why should some state be forced to pay tax for service it does not want in its state or other state.