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Will Gambling Ruling Turn The Tables On Marijuana Legalization?

By Rick Schettino
May 17, 2018

In a landmark bipartisan ruling that could turn the tables on marijuana legalization, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the state of New Jersey in a long-running case known as Murphy v. NCAA. The case involves the state of New Jersey’s attempts to create a legally regulated sports betting framework on the one hand, and professional sports organizations’ interests in keeping sports betting illegal (as prescribed by the federal government) on the other hand.

For those in the cannabis industry, this scenario may sound familiar. Does this ruling have implications for proponents of state-regulated legal cannabis? Many are betting on it.

Details Of The Case

Here’s some backstory on this case. In 1992, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. The legislation outright banned wagering on professional and college sports and also explicitly prohibited states from allowing the creation of sports betting institutions.

Twenty years later, in 2012, the state of New Jersey — which has a legal gaming industry — decided that it had grounds for essentially ignoring the law. Officials in the state attempted to legalize sports betting at casinos. Major sports organizations such as the NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB promptly sued.

The case has been in and out of court for the past five years.

Grounds For The Ruling

After lower courts had ruled that New Jersey’s intentions were, indeed, forbidden by the bill, appeals ensued. But it’s all over now.

In a 7-2 majority, led by the court’s most conservative justices, the court ruled that states cannot be forced to uphold federal law. Although federal law enforcement agencies are free to enforce the ban, states, on the other hand, are not required to enforce it. Is this starting to sound familiar?

So, on what grounds did the court make this decision?

In making their decision, the judges referred to no less than the U.S. Constitution. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution specifically prohibits the federal government from commandeering state resources to achieve its ends. This essentially means that the feds cannot force states to enforce federal law.

The ruling declared unconstitutional the provision of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act which required states to enforce the law.

How This Could Affect Cannabis

Like sports betting, cannabis cultivation and sale were banned by the federal government. And, as New Jersey is attempting to do with sports wagering, many states have created regulatory frameworks for a state-sanctioned cannabis industry.  

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent the federal government from enforcing the law, it now provides a precedent for states to legalize and regulate activities which are expressly prohibited by the federal government. Now, many are pointing to the decision as another example of why states should feel free to legalize weed.

A story posted by Leafly a couple months ago, entitled, “When State and Federal Laws Conflict, Who Wins?” quoted constitutional law expert Karl Manheim, who pointed out that “As is often the case in constitutional law, we have an equal and opposite constitutional command in the 10th Amendment, which says that states have a certain degree of autonomy and that Congress cannot commandeer state processes. As a general principle,” added Manheim, “states don’t have any constitutional obligation to cooperate with any federal agency.”

More Similarities

Although these are pretty much moot points, given the court’s decision, there are some other similarities between the two industries.

According to Leafly, Americans spend an estimated $150 billion on sports gambling every year. (To give you some idea of the magnitude of that number, the combined legal and illicit cannabis markets total a mere $45 billion.) The report claims that a full 97 percent of all sports bets are underwritten by organized crime.

Gambling, according to a story in the New York Post, has traditionally been the mob’s “bread and butter.” In the article, federal prosecutor Thomas Seigel points out that the decision will “significantly reduce” the mob’s clientele. Seigel is no stranger to the issue having run the Organized Crime and Gangs Section of the Brooklyn US Attorney’ s Office.

Marijuana trafficking has also traditionally been a staple of organized crime. Proponents of both “vices” say that since people are going to gamble and smoke pot anyway, rather than allowing all that cash to line the pockets of criminals, why not funnel it into state economies and use it to generate badly needed tax revenue.

Also, in line with anti-cannabis arguments, detractors of legal betting claim that the activity is a vice that it is addictive and ruins lives, while proponents argue that most responsible adults can enjoy gambling in moderation.

Finally, the anti-gambling camp — pro sports organizations, in particular — also claim that gambling undermines the integrity of organized sports. Similarly, the anti-cannabis camp — big pharma, in particular — claims that medical cannabis undermines organized medicine and the authority of the DEA and FDA.

As with the recent rise in bipartisan efforts to legalize marijuana, the judges’ bipartisan seven to two vote shows that a consensus is beginning to form — finally — that the federal government has no grounds for the regulation of adult “vices,” and that lawmakers in Washington should leave these issues up to the states.

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