States Rights/Federalism - Historical & Contemporary Context
A defining characteristic of the United States is our federalist stance. Our model of government enables states (and sometimes territories) to have a partially autonomous legislative and legal system within the national structure. The relationship between the federal government and the states has been contentious from the start. Issues of constitutionality and morality are generally at the center of these debates.
This nuanced relationship between the federal regulations, laws and practices with the cultural differences in each state has shown to be tenuous and draining on our political system.
Below there are two excerpts from online publications that highlight a historical and contemporary issue that provides additional context to this central question in American political institutions. Choose one and comment below answer the guiding questions.
Marijuana Reform/ A Statement by - Ethan Nadelmann:
The suggestion that reform of marijuana prohibition laws in the United States must start by focusing on federal and international law is simply an excuse for inaction. Federal law in this area will only change as a result of political pressures associated with changes in state laws. This does not mean that no efforts should be made to change federal and international laws, just that reforming state laws is an essential part of the political process by which federal and international marijuana prohibition laws will ultimately be reformed and repealed. Keep in mind too that this country has a long tradition of states serving as incubators for innovative policy reforms.
Kevin makes two other mistakes in his commentary. It’s not true – although I wish it were – that "most places punish the use of small amounts of marijuana similarly to a speeding ticket." Few people are handcuffed or taken to a police station or incarcerated in a jail for speeding tickets, but all those indignities routinely are applied to people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Government employees won’t lose their jobs for a speeding ticket but they may very well for a marijuana possession arrest. Punishment can be even more severe if the person arrested is among the roughly five million Americans on parole or probation, often for very minor offenses. Millions of Americans have suffered much worse than the equivalent of a speeding ticket in recent years for nothing more than being caught with a little marijuana.
As for the comparison with alcohol, the costs of alcohol abuse are so great in good part because alcohol can be a remarkably dangerous and destructive drug for a minority of consumers – much more so than marijuana. There is no basis to assume that the costs of marijuana misuse would be anything comparable to those of alcohol misuse if marijuana were made legally available.
Ethan Nadelmann is Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Excerpt from: http://reason.com/archives/2012/10/09/marijuana-and-states-rights-a-reason-deb.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
In Dred Scott v. Sandford (argued 1856 -- decided 1857), the Supreme Court ruled that Americans of African descent, whether free or slave, were not American citizens and could not sue in federal court. The Court also ruled that Congress lacked power to ban slavery in the U.S. territories. Finally, the Court declared that the rights of slave owners were constitutionally protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves were categorized as property.
The controversy began in 1833, when Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon with the U.S. Army, purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and eventually moved Scott to a base in the Wisconsin Territory. Slavery was banned in the territory pursuant to the Missouri Compromise. Scott lived there for the next four years, hiring himself out for work during the long stretches when Emerson was away. In 1840, Scott, his new wife, and their young children moved to Louisiana and then to St. Louis with Emerson. Emerson died in 1843, leaving the Scott family to his wife, Eliza Irene Sanford. In 1846, after laboring and saving for years, the Scotts sought to buy their freedom from Sanford, but she refused. Dred Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he was legally free because he and his family had lived in a territory where slavery was banned. In 1850, the state court finally declared Scott free. However, Scott's wages had been withheld pending the resolution of his case, and during that time Mrs. Emerson remarried and left her brother, John Sanford, to deal with her affairs. Mr. Sanford, unwilling to pay the back wages owed to Scott, appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court overturned the lower court's decision and ruled in favor of Sanford. Scott then filed another lawsuit in a federal circuit court claiming damages against Sanford's brother, John F.A. Sanford, for Sanford's alleged physical abuse against him. The jury ruled that Scott could not sue in federal court because he had already been deemed a slave under Missouri law. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1856. Due to a clerical error at the time, Sanford's name was misspelled in court records.
(Excerpt from: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/antebellum/landmark_dred.html)
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