There is an interesting cannabis tug-of-war going on in Arizona. Voters in the state approved Proposition 207 back in 2020, paving the way for legalized marijuana possession among adults. But a small number of rural counties have taken it upon themselves to prosecute commercial vehicle drivers for possession. They cite federal law as the authority for doing so. So, whose laws prevail?
Arizona State courts recognize that they are dealing with a gray area. They also recognize that continued conflicts between federal and state law will have them deciding cases they probably should not have to deal with. But until laws are reconciled around the country, there seems to be little way to avoid it.
Unfortunately, this creates a situation in which both defendants and prosecutors could ultimately choose to ignore court rulings based on whatever side of the law supports their positions. No doubt that all eyes are on Arizona as state courts work to figure it out.
1. Three Important Cases
Though there may be more, Arizonans are paying specific attention to three prominent cases involving cannabis possession by commercial vehicle drivers. The one case, in Pinal County, was eventually dismissed on a technicality. Two other cases were brought in Mohave County. One was settled and the other appears headed for court.
At the heart of all three are traffic stops on Interstate 10. During the stops, police officers discovered the drivers were in possession of cannabis and subsequently arrested and charged them. Local prosecutors maintain that county law enforcement is obligated to enforce federal law on interstate roads.
In all three cases, the suspects were charged based on driving commercial vehicles across state lines. Any such activity is governed by federal law under the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. Thus, driving across state lines while in possession of cannabis is illegal by federal statute.
2. Differences in State Law
Defense lawyers in the three cases say that county law enforcement does not have the authority to contravene state law. They also maintained that officers in each of the cases did not have probable cause to search the vehicles. All that notwithstanding, it still cannot be denied that transporting cannabis across state lines is a federal crime.
Even states have different rules on this matter. For example, the owners of Park City Utah’s Deseret Wellness cannabis pharmacy say that the Beehive State does not allow bringing medical cannabis into Utah from outside. Anyone hoping to use medical cannabis on a visit to Utah must have a valid medical cannabis card and purchase product within state borders.
Utah law coincides with federal law in this particular area. So if those same drivers had crossed into Utah while in possession of cannabis, local police officers could have arrested and charged them. What do we have? We have not only a conflict between federal and state law, but also a conflict between the states.
3.No Clear Boundaries
Unfortunately, this is what happens when federal and state lawmakers cannot agree on constitutional authority. On the one hand, states insist that the Constitution gives them the power to regulate cannabis as they see fit. On the other hand, federal regulators continually cite the interstate commerce clause as authority to enforce their rules.
The result is that there are no clear boundaries. When state and federal laws conflict, which set of laws prevails? We would normally assume that federal law wins. But if federal agencies refuse to enforce the law, they give states the freedom to do as they please. It is not good and is causing a big problem for confused citizens.