Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Federal prohibitions are ubiquitous in society. These prohibitions may be absolute, providing no exceptions, or they may be qualified, providing exemptions that allow specified parties to avoid a law's reach. The power to exempt parties from a prohibition is not limited to the federal government; it may be delegated to states or smaller polities as well. This is the structure that Congress employed when enacting the Mail Order Drug Paraphernalia Control Act: the Act bans, among other things, the sale and distribution of drug paraphernalia but provides an exemption for "any person authorized by local, State, or Federal law."

While the Act's exemption may appear unambiguous at first blush, interpretive difficulty ensues when one asks what is required of a state or locality to "authorize" federally prohibited conduct. This difficulty is troublesome given the significance that attaches to whether a party is considered "authorized." In states that have legalized marijuana, paraphernalia businesses are engaging in federally unlawful conduct until deemed authorized by state law, and a lack of authorization can result in devastating consequences. The importance of whether a party meets the Act's authorization exemption thus warrants a more nuanced understanding of what is required to "authorize" prohibited conduct.

But the law lacks such an understanding-not only in the context of the Paraphernalia Control Act but in other areas as well. This Note aims to provide a framework for discerning what actions are sufficient to authorize otherwise prohibited conduct. It submits that authorization exists along a continuum: it may be affirmative, more implicit, or inherent. By understanding the full range of meanings that authorization may take, the law will be better equipped to provide a more complete answer when determining whether a party is "authorized."