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The "States' Rights Party" Has a Serious States' Rights Problem

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

The issue of civil liberties versus states' rights has entered the forefront of the national political discussion as the White House made two announcements this week: (1) It's a states' rights issue to decide bathroom policy for transgender people, and (2) there will likely be an increase in enforcement of federal marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized it for recreational use.

Source: Reuters

Source: Washington Post

Source: NPR

Source: Market Watch

Here is what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on both issues.

On the federal guidance to transgender policy:

"The reality is when you look at Title IX, it was enacted in 1972. The idea that this was even contemplated ... is preposterous on its face... He (President Trump) just believes this is a state issue that needs to be addressed by states, as he does with a lot of issues that we have talked about... We are a states' rights party. The president on a lot of issues believes in these various issues being states' rights. I don't see why this would be any different."

Except, that is not completely the case with marijuana and cannabis policy:

“I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of . There’s two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. I think when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people."

This, of course, raises the question: how similar are the issues of the opioid addiction crisis and recreational marijuana? And, are medical and recreational marijuana really night and day issues?

The Marijuana Policy Project responded:

"The vast majority of Americans agree that the federal government has no business interfering in state marijuana laws. This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want marijuana to be produced and sold by cartels and criminals rather than tightly regulated, taxpaying businesses. Mr. Spicer says there is a difference between medical and recreational marijuana, but the benefits of and need for regulation apply equally to both."

The debate over states' rights versus civil liberties and the authority of the federal government has dominated topics from transgender protections to drug policy to immigration enforcement.

During the final DNC chair debate Wednesday night, for example, many of the candidates made the case for states' rights when it comes to state and local governments deciding how law enforcement resources are allocated to protect their communities -- defending states and cities that have given themselves sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants.

Some of the DNC candidates remarked on the irony that the "states' rights party" -- in the words of Sean Spicer -- would not stand up for local control over how states, counties, and cities choose to protect people within their respective jurisdictions. However, the fact that Democratic leaders and officials are making the case for more local control on this one issue cannot escape those who look for the irony in partisan politics either.

States' rights versus civil liberties is a nuanced debate that has existed since the founding of the republic. What issues are up to the purview of individual states and what issues fall under the jurisdiction of much broader federal protections and enforcement? Is marijuana policy a matter for the states or should the federal government step up enforcement to protect federal prohibition? Can a transgender boy or girl be denied protections in one state that they were granted in another? And, do Title IX protections really hinge on a discussion with parents, teachers, state lawmakers, etc?

The Internet, as expected, has a lot to say:

What do you think?

Photo Credit: J. Bicking /

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