Why Sports Betting Ruling Is a Win for State Marijuana Laws

May 15, 2018 by Paul Ausick

Monday’s six-to-three U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a sports gambling case prevents the federal government from forcing states to enforce federal law. In this case, the law in question was a New Jersey law that permitted gambling on sports. But the impact of the ruling is more far-reaching.

Under the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, any power not expressly given to the federal government or any power not expressly taken from the states is reserved for the states or the people. Thus, the federal government may not “commandeer” a state’s right to legalize sports betting. By extension, this ruling also may apply to state laws that decriminalize marijuana and make its use legal within a state.

The ruling makes no change to the federal Controlled Substances Act’s (CSA) scheduling of marijuana as a dangerous substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin. But state laws that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana are also vindicated.

The U.S. Congress may not interfere with state laws that allow marijuana possession and use. It can’t prohibit such laws or force the states to repeal them. This almost certainly means the end to a case brought by Josephine County, Oregon, against the state citing the CSA in an effort to prohibit marijuana in the county.

Monday’s ruling also may mean that the federal government may not threaten to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities nor force state and local police to enforce immigration laws.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg, joined in full by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justice Breyer, argues that the court’s ruling used an ax to chop down the federal law (known as the PASPA, Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) when it could have used a “scalpel to trim the statute.” She wrote:

Deleting the alleged “commandeering” directions would free the statute to accomplish just what Congress legitimately sought to achieve: stopping sports gambling regimes while making it clear that the stoppage is attributable to federal, not state, action.

If that view had prevailed, state laws on marijuana may not have escaped.