States’ rights is often seen as a "right-wing" issue, seeking to limit the power of the federal government on issues like gun control, immigration, and infamously in earlier years to oppose federal efforts to mandate desegregation and end slavery. States’ rights advocates say the Tenth Amendment reserves powers to the individual states that cannot be overruled by the federal government.
While states’ rights have certainly been used to justify the indefensible, like slavery, it’s important to differentiate constitutional issues from how states’ rights can be used to champion a particular cause. This has particular relevance now as many states have legalized medical marijuana, something the federal government is completely opposed to. Many on the left are now seeing states’ rights as an important issue in its own right and not just a code word for racism.
The federal government has shut down at least 500 medical marijuana dispensaries in California in the past eight months, claiming they were violating state as well as federal law. But states’ right advocates would say the federal government has no right to interfere in California and that law enforcement should be done by the state and local law enforcement not by the feds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agrees with the states’ rights position, saying “I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California” adding that medical marijuana is "both a medical and a states' rights issue." Her statement, I think, represents a real sea change in attitude by liberals about states’ rights, considering they generally used to oppose it without question. The more our politicians can break out of lock-step partisan positions, the better.
The Economist scratches its head at the confused, contradictory agenda of the Obama Administration on medical marijuana. At first, the administration signaled it would not interfere with medical marijuana, then changed its mind, but is only sporadically enforcing the law in six federal districts while completely ignoring other districts.
States do not like it. Democratic and Republican legislators from five medical-marijuana states have written an open letter to Barack Obama to end the “chaos” and leave this matter to the states. To all the good reasons for drug reform can now be added this classically conservative one: states’ rights.
States’ rights: it’s not just for conservatives anymore!