In U.S., we have both state and federal governments, and each can make its own laws. Federal laws apply to America as a whole, whereas the State's laws apply only to the particular state. So what happens when the two contradict each other?
According to the supremacy clause of the Constitution, in all cases of disagreement between the two, the federal law will trump the opposing state law. However, there are those special cases where the federal government chooses not to interfere with the state's legislation. In these instances, the federal government may use the states as a "trial run" of the legislation. That way they can observe how people are responding to the new law and if there are any new implications that surface.
If all goes well within one state, others may adopt similar legislation, and if enough people join in and are continuing to benefit from the legislation, the federal government may adopt it to set a precedent for the entire country. It's often how initiatives like welfare reform and health insurance policies get their start. In other instances the government chooses to get involved and overrule the state law. That approach is typically reserved for laws that encroach on an individual's basic rights or directly or indirectly discriminate against a group.
The issues of same-sex marriage and marijuana usage for both recreational and medical purposes are great examples of laws pioneered on the state level. In the case of same-sex marriage, state ballot initiatives and court cases were the precursors for federal rulings. But in the case of marijuana usage, the federal government seems to be taking the incubation approach, waiting to see what happens with states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington. According to USA Today "The Justice Department reserved its right to challenge state laws if public health or safety problems emerge or if the states fail to enact strict regulations to control marijuana use and sale."
These examples show the balance between the state and federal law. Although something is federally illegal, the federal government may choose not to act on the issue depending on the severity of the law. The government is a complex system of checks and balances, but knowing how to differentiate between the different levels is crucial.
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