November 28, 2004

The marijuana case: a great test of law and politics.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court hears oral argument in Raich v. Ashcroft, the medical marijuana case, which sets the federal government's interest in comprehensive regulation of the marijuana market against the state's interest in controlling small, isolated uses of marijuana. In the case at hand, California would like to be free to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Generally, judicial and political liberals have opposed the Supreme Court's enforcement of constitutional federalism, which limits the reach of federal governmental power and leaves room for individual states to experiment with their own policies, suited to local conditions and local political preferences. But some state policy experiments are appealing to those who did not like it when the Supreme Court used ideas about federalism to strike down the Gun-Free School Zones Act and part of the Violence Against Women Act.

So it will be interesting to see the response of those who have harshly criticized the majority's recent federalism decisions and have professed abject deference to Congress and the Executive branch about federalism matters. From a liberal perspective, one might want to think: I support the enforcement of federalism limits when federalism is really a stand-in for individual rights, and I support strong federal government power when the federal policy in question is really a stand-in for individual rights. But it is rather hard to translate that instinct into sound constitutional law.

Conservatives face a dilemma too, if their conservatism is the kind that puts great importance on strong anti-drug enforcement. But conservatives who take the libertarian position on drugs can happily seize a two-fold opportunity: they can demonstrate a principled fidelity to constitutional federalism and, at the same time, improve federalism's reputation among liberals.

My earlier posts about federalism and medical marijuana are here and here .

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