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At the bank I was asked if my income would come from growing marijuana. The bank clerk said they ask this because it’s illegal on the federal level, even though legal in some states.

How can something be illegal on the federal level, yet legal on the state level?

Is there any special system where a state has the right to overrule federal law for some areas of law or some kinds of law?

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  • Out of curiosity: in what context did the bank person ask this? I've never been asked any such question... Jan 21 at 17:16
  • @paulgarrett I got the same question when opening business accounts for my firm. They also asked if I was going to operate a casino or engage in terrorism, if I recall correctly.
    – bdb484
    Jan 22 at 3:22
  • Being legal on the state level just means the state law does not say you will be penalized. How can state law not saying something ever "conflict" with another law? The state is not saying that federal law does not apply.
    – user102008
    Jan 23 at 7:03

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It’s complicated

Yes, Federal law overrides state law, but only if the Federal government has jurisdiction.

A way of thinking about this is that the states are sovereign, but have ceded some aspects of their sovereignty to the USA. In some cases, like the ability to enter treaties with foreign powers, the ceding is absolute - the states just can’t do that. In other cases, the states still have the power to make law but where the Constitution says the Federal government also has the power, Federal law wins if it conflicts.

The important thing is that the Constitution has to actually grant the relevant power to the Federal government; they can’t just make laws about anything.

Now, this gets complicated, but the most likely route for the Federal government to make laws about marijuana is the interstate commerce clause. The Federal government is allowed to regulate anything that impacts commerce that crosses state lines. You would think that commerce that happens entirely within one state would not trigger that power, but SCOTUS disagrees. If it can impact interstate commerce, say by affecting prices in other states, then that gives the Federal government an “in”.

With marijuana specifically, the Federal government has shown a general disinterest in enforcing laws that may or may not be constitutional; possibly because they don’t want to know for sure. However, if your bank operates across state lines (and they all do) then the Federal government is on much surer ground. Or, at least, your bank doesn’t want to be the test case.

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    I’m not sure what you mean by - banks all operate across state lines - but I believed they are all federally regulated. Jan 21 at 17:12

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