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What happens when states enact legislation that contradicts federal laws?

October 1, 2013

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

From Colorado to Missouri, Wyoming to Washington, states recently have passed laws that contradict or ignore federal laws.

In these so-called nullification efforts, the states have acted because they say the federal laws are unconstitutional or they disagree with the laws.

For example, Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for anyone over the age of 21 while the federal government still criminalizes the possession and distribution of the drug.

This led to a standoff between the states and the Department of Justice, until the department announced that it would not prosecute marijuana growers and distributors in Colorado and Washington. The Justice Department emphasized that the states must tightly regulate marijuana and that it has the right to arrest anyone breaking a federal law.

Wyoming’s House of Representatives passed legislation that would make it illegal for federal agents to enforce federal regulations regarding personal firearms in the state. Missouri’s legislature approved a similar measure, but the governor vetoed it.

And it doesn’t end there. An Associated Press analysis found that four of five states have a law that directly opposes a federal law. The laws include medical marijuana use, the federal health care law, identification standards for driver’s licenses, and gun measures.

So what does it mean when a state passes legislation that goes against federal laws?

The answer is tricky.

In the cases of Colorado and Washington, the federal government, operating through the Department of Justice, decided that it was not worth the legal fight and has stepped back to see what happens in regard to marijuana laws.

The Justice Department said it would allow the states to enact legalization efforts as long as strict regulations ensure that the drug does not get into the hands of minors, that the profit is not going to criminal enterprises, and that marijuana grown in the states does not cross into states where the drug is illegal.

Simply put, the federal government is allowing the marijuana shops to open, but it also retains the right to shut them down at any time.

When it comes to gun laws and health care, it’s a battle among the 10th Amendment, the commerce clause, and the supremacy clause.

The 10th Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Supporters of states’ rights argue that the 10th Amendment grants the states more power than the federal government, because if it isn’t a power granted by the Constitution to the federal government, it is a power of the state.

But the U.S. Supreme Court routinely has rejected states’ claims that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and violated the 10th Amendment.

In Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court said that state agencies did not have to perform federally mandated background checks of individuals trying to purchase a handgun, but since the background checks were federal law, federal agencies were allowed to conduct background checks. Essentially the ruling says that states don’t have to participate in federal laws, but they can’t prevent federal agencies from enforcing those laws.

Article I, Section 8, states that Congress has the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes.” This is commonly called the commerce clause, and the Supreme Court routinely has determined that any economic activity that could potentially spill over state boundaries can be subject to federal regulation.

Furthermore, Article VI of the Constitution contains what is often referred to as the supremacy clause. It states that when a state law is in conflict with a federal law, the federal law takes priority. Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in constitutional law, said that “the law is clear — the supremacy clause says specifically that the federal laws are supreme over contrary state laws, even if the state doesn't like those laws."

What do you think?

Should state laws or federal laws take priority? How should the federal government deal with states’ marijuana laws? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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Comments
4/14/2014
Cali
Joseph
Mr. Hawkins/BCMHS
I think states should follow federal laws and respect them. I think states that make laws that contradict the federal government can create issues within our nation. The Department of Justice and the states should make it hard for marijuana to be easily obtained, and should remain illegal. In addition, the federal government has the right to criminalize the possession and distribution of the drug.

4/14/2014
Vacaville, CA
Joey
Hawkins / BCMHS
Although some believe it is unconstitutional, state laws should take priority. There are already several states that have more or less strict laws than others. The most common laws that vary from state to state are gun laws. As long as states aren’t breaking huge rules in the constitution then it should be fine. Making marijuana legal is not a big deal.

4/14/2014
Vacaville/CA
Jordan H
Hawkins/BCMHS
When a State passes a law or regulation that completely violates a federal law, it’s a tricky situation. Obviously, as America, when invoke many freedoms and rights to our citizens. However, there are rules in place. Given that each state has independent measures on its own, the States are allowed to pass whatever state laws they feel they want to. But, when it crosses over the border of a federal government issue, it leads to a standoff. I feel like the Federal government should keep doing what it’s doing, in regards to the marijuana laws. They didn’t want to fight the legal battle, so they are allowing the laws, and are giving the states their space. However, the Federal government still retains the right to shut down and arrest anyone violating the Federal law. So they said, if it’s kept into place, and follows the guidelines we’ve laid out for you, then it will be allowed, but, if it gets out of hand, the Federal government will come in, they will lay down the law, and the will prosecute. I think this is a fair solution. It allows the people to do what they want, because they voted for the law, while also allowing the Federal government to retain its power and have a metaphorical “leash” on these states.

4/14/2014
Vacaville/California
Andreas
Mr. Hawkins/Buckingham
On the topic of what ought to happen if state laws contradict federal laws is that, unless the power is granted in the constitution to the federal government, then the state should have precedence. If, however, the power is delegated to the federal government in the constitution on the issue, then the supremacy clause is active. This is important because the power of the federal government must be limited, and keeping the power in separated sections like states brings that power a little bit closer to the people and makes it a little less convoluted. One of the founding fathers’ biggest concerns was the federal government becoming too powerful, and that is important to understand when looking at the 6th and 10th amendments for guidance. In conclusion, I think states have precedence on any issue not specifically delegated to the federal government. This is necessary to help keep progress moving, and make government more accessible.

12/12/2013
Shoreline/Washington
Andrew Seger
Knox/Shorewood
States should hold the power that the federal government does not take. If there is a federal law then the law has already been made and the responsibility does not fall apon the state law makers. When a state makes a law that contradicts a federal one then the federal law should take presidenc according to the constitution. When a state makes a law that legalizes marajuana then the federal government should still make sure that those who break the federal law are prosecuted. The point of a state making a law in contradiction to the constitution is so that when there is a majority of states with the same or similar law to the first that federal law makers can change the federal law, thus making it legal to practice in the states.

11/15/2013
Irving/Texas
Daniel I
Bradley/Nimitz
I think the federal laws wins in this fight because of the Supremacy clause. The federal government can make an arrest if they want to related to marijuana since marijuana is illegal nationally. Marijuana isn't a big issue right now which is why nothing has been done, but national laws are still supreme.

11/14/2013
Irving/ Texas
Emily
Bradley/Nimitz
Federal laws will always always have more power than state laws that is why the Constitution was written. States do have rights to create their own laws as long as the don't contradict with federal laws. States should always ask for permission to create a new law because the Government has to make sure the law doesn't violate anyone's rights. It is very important in my opinion that State laws should be modified because some states are known to make radical decisions. The government essentially does have the power to go into a state and make sure the possession and distribution of marijuana is illegal. Even if the state legalizes it the government does have a say in how it is regulated. If the government feels like the states are abusing their power given to them in the 10th Amendment the government can come in and enforce the law if they feel it is the best for the people. I strongly believe that the government does have the power to do things like make Marijuana illegal in states.

11/14/2013
Irving/TX
Aaron
Bradley/Nimitz
When dealing with both state and federal laws, it can be some times a bit difficult to take sides due to the extent that said laws could possibly represent. However, with that being said, I do believe that state laws should have SOME say in instating their own laws and doings. Obviously there's going to be controversy amongst enforced laws no matter the state, so instead of turning the matter into a national issue , I think the states should have something of an ability to instate their own laws----with limits, of course.

11/14/2013
Irving/Texas
Leanna
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that states should be allowed to run certain things to a certain extent. Like in the dealing of states' marijuana laws, the federal government should leave that to the states. If it gets to be too much for the states, then the federal government can step in and take over. Only then can the federal government have more power.

11/14/2013
Irving/Texas
Jose A.
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the federal laws should take priority over states laws because the federal government is what binds the states together. I feel like states should keep a closer eye on marijuana because some states follow the rulings of ‘medical marijuana’ very loosely. This makes it easy for regular people to purchase it for personal needs. The federal government should make the process of getting medical marijuana more in depth so that regular people find it harder to obtain it.

11/14/2013
Irving, TX
Jesus Gonzalez
Bradley/Nimitz HS
I think federal laws should take priority because this can turn into a national issue.They should restrict it more because instead of the use for medication they use it for personal needs.This means they need to regulate how they receive it.

11/14/2013
Irving/Texas
Lyndsey
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that federal laws take priority. Just as it says in the supremacy clause. States can make their own laws, as long as they don't contradict what the federal law states. I think the federal government is dealing with the marijuana laws very fairly. I understand that the states' marijuana law is contradicting the federal law, but I honestly don't think that legalizing marijuana should be a huge priority in the national government. I feel as if they have a lot of more important things to deal with. I think that they should just make sure that the states are following their laws as they say they will, but I think what they are doing is completely fair.

11/12/2013
Irving/Texas
Hailey
Bradley/Nimitz
In my opinion I think federal laws have power over state laws, just as it is stated in the supremacy clause. I think states should have the power to make their own laws, only if they don’t contradict those of the federal government. The states do not have the authority to pass a law that negates a federal law. I think the federal government has the power to shut down marijuana distribution and consumption, even in the states that legalize it. I think it is important for the federal government to regulate the use of marijuana but it shouldn’t be one of their top priorities unless it gets out of control. I think there are many other things going on in our country that should be more important than the legality of marijuana.

11/6/2013
Irving/Texas
David W.
Bradley/Nimitz HS
States are given power that isn't designated to the federal government or restricted to the states; therefore, the states have the right to make and enforce any rules they desire that do not conflict with the 10th amendment. The state governments do not have the right or power to enforce a law that directly opposes a federal law. The federal government should either repeal their laws against marijuana to remove the conflict, or discipline the states that are opposing their rule in such a way that would prevent future conflicts.

11/6/2013
Irving/Texas
Daniel S.
Bradley/Nimitz
The states should be allowed to enforce their own laws and manage what occurs between state lines. However, I strongly feel that the Federal government should act as a motherly force and watch over the states in case things get out of hand. I encourage the federal government to step in, and only do so, if they seek reason to do so. If they deem it necessary to enter a state and seize what they are after they must have pretty heavy facts leading them to make that decision to do so. So basically let the states handle their own business, for now. If it becomes a problem and the federal government seeks that they have too much power than ultimately them as a higher force would take control of the issue at hand. But for now I see no reason to intrude on a non threatening system.

10/29/2013
irving/ texas
Adrian
bradley/ nimitz
The states should always be able to have its rules and be able to enforce them, however the states should enforce the federal laws. Both states and the federal government should reach a compromise on marijuana laws, so both parties can be appeased.

10/17/2013
Irving/TX
Reyanna
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the federal government has control over the state and whatever laws that come with it. The supremacy clause in the constitution states that the federal government has priority over any and all state laws. The federal government should know when to intervene with the states and when not to and this is not a good time to. The marijuana issue is not the most important issue in the nation at the time. I believe that the federal government should face more issues that are more important to the nation as a whole. But if the federal government wants, they should be allowed to arrest anyone in possession of marijuana if needed.

10/11/2013
Irving/TX
Matt M.
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that state laws should take priority in an ideal system of government. We can all agree that states have different needs and expectations based on the people that live there. The state government is more involved directly to the states citizens which allows them to inherently know what the people in that state want and believe. Although I do believe you are a citizen of the United states before you are a citizen of your state, and that there are some laws that every state should follow no matter what; when it comes to some laws, a state generally does know what’s best for its people. To the marijuana issue, I do believe the federal government is handling the situation proactively by just allowing the states to have the law they desire in a time where there are far more serious issues to be addressed domestically and internationally. Trying to make marijuana illegal in all states would only add more quarreling in a time where internal animosity is not what we need.

10/11/2013
Irving/tx
Elizabeth C.
Bradley/Nimitz
The federal law takes priority because of the supremacy clause. Marijuana is legal in some states, but if the Federal Government is in one of those states, they can make an arrest, because marijuana is illegal nationally. At this moment, marijuana doesn't seem to be a big issue, so the government is staying out of states that legalized it. However, the national governments laws are supreme, and they can choose to override any state if they need to.

10/11/2013
Irving/TX
Scotty C.
Bradley/Nimitz
Federal laws should take priority over any state laws due to the supremacy clause in the constitution. However, I believe that the federal government picks and chooses their battles with the states. At this moment, marijuana is not a top priority in the public's eyes, so the government is staying out of California and Colorado for now. If the federal government is in one of those states, or any state that legalizes marijuana, they have the right to make an arrest if the deem it necessary.

10/11/2013
Irving/TX
Brandon
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that states should be given the right to manage themselves to a certain extent. For example, in dealing with states' marijuana laws, the federal government should leave it alone. However, if it becomes a problem, as the Justice Department clearly provided some circumstances, then the federal government must step in. Only until then, do I believe, that federal laws should take priority.

10/10/2013
Irving/Texas
Cyndel
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the State rights should be upheld by the federal government. Unless the law is in direct “rebellion”with what the country stands for.The federal government should only be there to observe and make sure the law is being followed.On the part of legalizing marijuana they should take all the states senators and get their input on what their people want.

10/10/2013
Irving/Texas
Chadwick
Bradley/Nimitz
Federal laws are supreme as stated by the supremacy clause in the Constitution. Whether the state likes the law or not, a federal law must be accepted as states do not have the ability to nullify laws prescribed by the federal government-as much as they'd like to and try to at times. Within the states with controversial laws regarding marijuana, federal laws are supreme over the states laws and the state reserves the right to arrest anyone breaking the federal law. At the same time, if the federal government isn't prepared to step in and enforce its law, the state isn't forced to abide by it. The controversy of the state laws versus the federal laws is simple: federal laws are superior and supreme, state laws are second. If a federal agent sees fit to arrest a citizen in a state who is breaking a federal law, even if by the state's law it isn't illegal, the federal agent has the right to make the arrest.

10/10/2013
Irving/Tx
Marissa
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that overall the federal laws should take priority over state laws just because if every states' laws became more important than federal laws, the federal laws would become pointless and useless due to the fact that the states wouldn't have to abide by them. I think the federal government should take into consideration the reasons why the states have marijuana laws and then make a reasonable decision after hearing them out. Though the federal government should have the ultimate say, the states and federal government should find a way to either compromise or if necessary the federal government enforces its law.

10/8/2013
Irving/Texas
Viviana
Bradley/Nimitz
Although the 10th amendment reserves powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution to the states, federal laws should take priority. According to the supremacy clause, federal laws are superior to state laws when a state law is in conflict and there should be nothing argued here. Marijuana based laws appear to be concurrent- held by both the federal (national) government and the states. As a result of this, the federal government should definitely have the right to either over rule the marijuana state laws in a considerate way only if it is in conflict with it's own, or take some steps to help the state enforce the laws and meet it's goals.

10/8/2013
Irving/Texas
Christian
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that is was a correct cause I believe that every state should be able to enforce some polices others do not but it must be regulated by the national government so that they don't go to far.The Federal government should allow the laws to pass for legalization in the state that has it legalized but they should not allow the state to have all power towards the decisions the federal government should have a say too.

10/8/2013
Irving/Tx
Brian J.
Bradley/Nimitz
When power is not constitutionally given to the federal government, then I believe states should be allowed to control themselves. States have the power to do what they want in some areas and as long as they're not harming their surrounding states, I think they should be able to do as they please. As long as they're in their constitutional rights. When dealing with marijuana laws, I believe the states should be able to do what they want, as long as they're not taking their business across their border to another state. Federal law should be able to shut the business down if it over steps its boundaries, but not until then.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Joseph C.
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that the state laws should be able to do what they want as long as it is not hurting any other states. In other words I agree with the decisions made. The states should be able to make their own laws, and the federal government should be there just to make sure its not causing any harm. The federal government should be there just to observe.

10/7/2013
Irving/TX
Yamilleth
Bradley/Nimitz
Federal Laws. If an individual state is trying to legalize or pass a certain law, it could end up affecting the whole nation, even if it is "restricted" to that state. That is where the Federal Government steps in and can either strike down, or make sure that the state's laws aren't going against the Constitution or violating the citizens rights. If all states were able to pass their own laws there would be too much disorder going around. The Federal government has already put "strict regulations" to ensure that the drug does not get into the hands of minors, that the profit is not going to criminal enterprises, and that marijuana grown in the states does not cross into states where the drug is illegal. Either way there were people disobeying these laws before marijuana was legalized, and they will continue to disobey the laws even with these restrictions. I think that it is up to the Federal government, to make sure that the States are really informing the youth, and everyone in the states where Marijuana is legalized, the reasons as to why the drug was legalized, and for what reasons.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Sarah M.
Bradley/Nimitz
Because of the supremacy clause, I find it hard to see why state laws would preside over federal ones. Article six clearly states that federal laws are supreme to state laws. But, this doesn’t mean states can’t make any laws. States are able to enforce their own laws, however, in the case that a state law conflicts with a federal, the federal law would ultimately win. On the case of marijuana, I think it should be illegal for any state to legalize because it’s too difficult to properly enforce the regulations that the federal government has. There’s just no guarantee that marijuana won’t cross into other states or fall into minor hands. I’m constantly in an environment where minors have access to the drug, and it’s not even legal here. So, imagine how much easier it is for minors to get their hands on marijuana in a place where it’s legal.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Aaron G.
Bradley/Nimitz
Welp, a tiny bit of information to retain when considering the battle between Federal and State laws is that no one will ever have the same opinion on a given matter, regardless its popularity. It's hard to answer which set of laws should be taken into priority, as individual states are bound to disagree on what's voted for for the whole. Because of this, the marijuana laws are hard to debate over. Generally speaking, it's been made clear that Federal Laws come first, but with this, it's hard to determine how far along we must go until it's the States' turn to take action.

10/7/2013
Irving/Tx
Seth
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe federal laws should take priority because they laws are superior to the state laws. The state laws should not contradict what the federal laws say because all that means is there is no point of having the federal laws because the states are going to have a law the total opposite. If marijuana is in possession in any state it should be illegal no matter what. State laws are not superior to federal laws.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Roberto.S
Bradley/Nimitz H S
The States shouldn't contradict the Federal gov't laws, because the Federal government has first priority and they're allowed to enforce their laws. Reasons why is the 10th amendment the supremacy clause said no one is above the federal gov't and shouldn't make laws that oppose the federal government.

10/7/2013
Irving/TX
Sergio G.
Bradley/Nimitz
States rights or federal laws is what is argued. I believe it's the job of the state to decide on these laws. Like it is said if not in the constitution, it is the states right to take charge of the situation. On the other hand on the topic of marijuana I believe it should be agreed by all to make a decision. Knowing of this as an illegal substance gives a chance to grow it and export it to places were it is illegal from places that it is legal causing a huge revenue for the criminals out there. So I believe that on a topic like this it should be a nations choice on either to legalize it, but on the health care and many more I believe it's the states choice to decide.

10/7/2013
Irving/TX
Edward H.
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that states should be able to pass laws that will help their states situation regardless of it contradicting federal laws. And as for the making marijuana legal or illegal, the federal government should sit down with all the states and really discuss whether it should be legal or illegal. Because you can not just have a few states having something legal and the rest of the states have it illegal.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Monica M. M.
Bradley/Nimitz
When states enact legislation that contradict the federal laws it should simply be handled with proof of roles. The professor, Adam Winkler, clearly gave proof of who was to take priority in cases where the states don’t like the federal laws. In that we found that federals do because without it there would be no sense of balance and no set laws. Citizens of the state would be confused if the laws are not set clear by the ones who take priority.Therefore the marijuana law should be a crime if in possession and distributed.

10/7/2013
Irving/Tx
Hannah W.
Bradley/Nimitz
In the question of whether or not state laws and federal laws should take priority, I think that is some cases state laws should overrule the federal ones because of what the tenth amendment. The tenth amendment states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This meaning that some areas in matters of state and federal laws allows the states to make their own laws and not have the federal government intervene. The federal government should deal with the state laws that allow marijuana in a way that won’t make the state upset or cause their own conflict. Let the states do what they please and if it causes a problem only then should they step in.

10/7/2013
Irving/Tx
Pedro
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that federal laws should take priority because the federal government is supposed the government that runs the country. I believe that if state laws were put above federal laws, the states would gain too much power and would be free to do whatever they want. Without the federal government stepping in, there's a possibility that some states would be in a state of chaos and that could spread to the surrounding states and the states surrounding those states and so forth. The federal government should be in charge of keeping marijuana illegal or legalizing it. In a way it really doesn't matter because either way, people are still going to be breaking the law. I doubt that people 21 and under in Colorado actually obey the law and wait until they're 22 to smoke weed. But since "the federal government still criminalizes the possession and distribution of the drug", they should be the ones making the marijuana laws.

10/7/2013
Irving/Tx
Miriam
Bradley/Nimitz
Priority shouldn't be given based on whether they are federal or state laws. It should be given based on what the people want and need. The current nullification are working the way they should. States have the right to instill marijuana laws, but these laws shouldn’t interfere or involve other states. The government is giving states the right to establish this marijuana laws, but the government also has the right to take it all away the second it gets out of hand. This current situation is effective and is helping to establish boundaries between the state and federal government.

10/7/2013
Irving/Tx
Jordan B.
Bradley/Nimitz
Like they said in the text, this is a very tricky topic. My opinion is that the laws should be able to pass a law that helps your state, but without it abusing and disregarding the federal laws. I honestly think that the states and federal government should either legalize marijuana of not legalize it. We don’t need some states that do and do not allow the use and exporting marijuana.

10/7/2013
Irving/TX
Imbri
Bradley/Nimitz
The federal law takes priority. The 10th amendment, in which states are granted all powers not laid out as federal powers by the Constitution, is irrelevant because of the supremacy clause. If a federal law is truly unconstitutional, a state can not just make a law that defies it, but rather go through the proper process to get the law repealed. In the case of Washington and Colorado, my opinion is this: marijuana is illegal by federal law and therefore the sale of marijuana should not be permitted in any of the states. I feel like these defiant laws are weakening America's unity.

10/7/2013
Irving/Texas
Teven
Bradley/Nimitz
State laws should never take priority over federal laws, no matter how much a state may dislike those laws. After all, the Civil War was caused by a Nullification crisis resulting in secession. If a state law is in conflict with a federal law, under the Supremacy clause of the Constitution, the federal law trumps the state law. If marijuana laws are being passed in states, against federal laws, those state laws should either be changed to make it illegal again or the federal laws should be changed to make marijuana legal everywhere.

10/7/2013
irving/ texas
Adrian
bradley/ nimitz
I believe in states rights, this is the reason for the civil war, the federal government should respect the states decisions. The central government should not encroach on the rights of each state. Although the states should also respect the federal government.

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