California's medical-marijuana law would seem a classic case of states' rights.
It was approved by the voters at large in a ballot initiative and as a law by the state legislature.
The commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution would seem not to apply because the product was grown entirely in the state, was never bought and sold and never crossed state lines. And the marijuana was made available to qualified patients by state-regulated doctor's prescription.
Nine other states, from Maine to Hawaii, have similar laws, so this is hardly an ill-considered proposition.
But the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, didn't see it that way. Justices ruled that the feds can prosecute patients whose doctors have prescribed marijuana to ease chronic, debilitating pain.
In asserting federal primacy over marijuana, the majority argued on the basis of several likelihoods — the likelihood that medical marijuana would be diverted to the illegal drug market, the likelihood that unscrupulous drug dealers would exploit the law, the likelihood that unscrupulous physicians would over-prescribe and the likelihood that medical marijuana might find its way out of state.
Conceivably this could happen, but the ruling saddles federal drug agents with a really small-bore law-enforcement problem. In this particular case, federal agents, over the protests of the local district attorney, showed up at the home of Diane Monson, 46, who suffers from a degenerative spine disease, and tore up the six marijuana plants in her backyard. Monson, who had a doctor's prescription for the plants, has never been charged.
The court, Congress and the Bush administration have become schizophrenic about states' rights: They are for them except when they are against them. It's hard to quarrel with Justice Clarence Thomas' dissent: "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything — and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."