We think it is worth taking another look at whether Washington’s strict residency requirement is constitutional. Since Washington first licensed marijuana businesses in 2014, we have wondered if anyone would be willing to bear the expenses of that particular challenge. And to date, there are no Washington appellate or federal legal decisions determining the constitutionality of the residency requirement. If there were a challenge, Washington would have a tough time defending the constitutionality of the law.
There are two important constitutional concept here: the Dormant Commerce Clause (the DCC) and the Privileges and Immunities Clause (the PIC). We first wrote about one of these, the DCC, three years ago. The DCC is a body of law (all made by judges) that seeks to enforce free-trade rules among the states. The idea is that Congress has the sole authority to regulate interstate commerce, and state laws that blatantly interfere with interstate commerce are potentially unconstitutional. Our analysis of this issue is largely the same as it was in that blog post three years ago. To determine if a law violates the DCC, one first determines whether the law interferes with interstate commerce. Washington’s residency restriction likely does so because it stops out-of-state participants from engaging in commerce in Washington. If a state law discriminates against out of state residents, it is very likely unconstitutional. It can only survive if the state can show that the law is the least restrictive means by which it can achieve a non-protectionist purpose. In the case of Washington’s marijuana residency requirement, there are lots of other states without such a requirement, and they are doing fine.
It looks like the book could be open and shut with the DCC, but people are still hesitant to bring that case. The DCC is tough to understand in practice: It’s a constitutional restriction by inference and counterfactual. So if law by logical proof isn’t your thing, the PIC provides an alternative compelling constitutional argument that Washington’s residency restriction would lose a court battle. The PIC — Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution — says: “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” The PIC seeks to prevent discrimination by one state against another state’s residents. In addition to protecting civil liberties, the PIC also protects fundamental economic interests.
The weakness in the PIC arguments is that the right to own a marijuana business may not be considered a fundamental economic right that the PIC protects. In past cases, the PIC has successfully knocked out state residency requirements for attorney bar licensure and for employment, but the PIC has failed to stop a state from only giving hunting licenses to its residents. Cases seem to say that commercial activity, as opposed to recreational, is fundamental, but it would be reasonable for the discriminating state to argue that the right to own a federally illegal marijuana business cannot, by definition, be fundamental enough to get this constitutional protection.
The federal illegality of marijuana, of course, is the elephant in the room. There seems to be a misconception that federal courts would never protect a would-be marijuana business owner in a legal battle with the state. That fear, however, is a misreading of constitutional law. Marijuana’s illegality does get in the way of a lot of general legal enforcement. Contracts with an illegal subject matter can be found void as a matter of law. Federal bankruptcy courts will not process marijuana company filings because they cannot appoint a trustee to manage marijuana assets. And in cases where parties seek injunctive relief, courts can use the “clean hands” doctrine to say that they will not issue injunctions to help marijuana businesses because those businesses have not come to the court with sufficiently “clean hands” to receive the benefit of equitable rulings.
However, the Constitution is not a contract or an equitable ruling. The Constitution protects us from state and federal overreach in all circumstances, regardless of what we have done and regardless of what we are doing. To put it another way, let’s say that Washington had a law that said women not allowed to own a marijuana business. Does anyone think that a federal court would not overturn that law? Of course it would. It doesn’t matter that marijuana is federally illegal; the state cannot violate the Constitution with illegal preferences. Similarly, both the DCC and the PIC are constitutional protections. A litigant against the state of Washington seeking to overturn the residency requirement would win or lose on the merits. Even a federal court would not throw out a case simply because marijuana businesses were involved.