Court Upholds Ban on Federal Interference with Medical Marijuana Laws

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 23, 2016

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Medical MarijuanaA conflict between state and federal law has long bedeviled patients who rely on medical marijuana and the clinics that supply them with their drug. Although more than half of the states have enacted a law that legalizes the possession of medical marijuana under some circumstances, federal law (with very limited exceptions) prohibits the possession of marijuana for any reason. That conflict means that a patient who is authorized to use marijuana for a medical purpose in a particular state could nevertheless be arrested by federal authorities for marijuana possession.

As a practical matter, whether the federal government will enforce its marijuana laws against medical marijuana patients and clinics depends upon the policy adopted by the Justice Department, which in turn depends upon the administration that is holding office. During the Bush administration, the Justice Department took a hardline stand against medical marijuana, exemplified by raids on California’s medical marijuana clinics.

In 2009, a Justice Department policy suggested that prosecuting medical marijuana users or sellers would not be an efficient use of federal resources. At the same time, the policy suggested that the large-scale commercial distribution of marijuana, even for medical purposes, might result in a federal prosecution. The current Justice Department issued a wishy-washy policy in 2013 suggesting that it might not enforce federal law in states that strictly regulated any medical and/or recreational marijuana use that state law authorized.

Congress versus the Justice Department

Advocates of state’s rights recently joined forces with medical marijuana proponents in Congress in an effort to protect medical marijuana patients and suppliers from federal prosecution. In 2014, Congress added a provision to the budget bill that prohibits using federal funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws. A similar provision was included in the 2015 budget bill. President Obama signed the budget bills into law, including their medical marijuana provisions.

The policy change was resisted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), perhaps because a vigorous war on drugs is critical to the agency’s funding. Despite evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment alternative for specific medical conditions, the DEA continues to classify marijuana as a dangerous addictive drug that has no recognized medical value.

Following the DEA’s lead, the Justice Department has continued to prosecute growers and vendors of medical marijuana who act under the authority of state law. While raids on marijuana dispensaries in California decreased during 2015, they did not end. The Justice Department justified its defiance of the 2014 law with the shaky argument that it was only targeting a few vendors and therefore was not significantly impeding California law. Notably, the word “significantly” does not appear in the law that tells federal agencies not to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws.

The Justice Department has apparently targeted California because its law (one of the first to authorize medical marijuana) is broad and arguably subject to abuse. It does not appear that federal authorities are generally prosecuting medical marijuana cases in states with newer laws that are more narrowly tailored to limit the number of patients who can receive medical marijuana prescriptions.

Ninth Circuit Rules Against Justice Department

Notwithstanding the current federal law, the Justice Department has continued to prosecute cases involving medical marijuana that it commenced before the spending prohibition took effect. Defendants in those cases have contended that the Justice Department is violating the law by continuing to devote federal resources to the prosecution of those cases.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently issued a decision in ten consolidated appeals from criminal prosecutions in California and Washington. The cases involved prosecutions of medical marijuana growers and sellers.

Criminal defendants are not usually entitled to appeal before they are convicted, but the Ninth Circuit ruled that the defendants could challenge the use of federal funds to prosecute them, and that the denials of those challenges presented important issues that should be resolved before the cases proceeded to trial. An immediate appeal was appropriate since an appeal after a conviction would come too late to prevent the government from spending money that Congress told it not to spend.

The court began its analysis by noting that the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution prohibits any federal agency from spending money that Congress has not authorized. The constitutional system of checks and balances allows the legislative branch to control the conduct of the executive branch by denying funds for specific executive actions.

Turning to the spending bills, the court decided that Congress intended to prevent the executive branch from spending money on actions that prevent states from “giving practical effect to their state laws” that authorize the use, possession, distribution, or cultivation of medical marijuana. Prosecuting people for engaging in conduct that the state has authorized would undermine medical marijuana laws in violation of Congress’ directive.

The Justice Department argued that it did not prevent the state from giving effect to its laws because it prosecuted individuals, not the state. The court easily concluded that sanctioning individuals for growing or selling medical marijuana would prevent the state from giving effect to laws that were meant to make medical marijuana available to patients who need it.

The Future of Medical Marijuana Prosecutions

At the same time, the court concluded that Congress did not prevent the Justice Department from prosecuting individuals who are not authorized by state law to grow, sell, or use medical marijuana. To avoid federal prosecution, in other words, growers and sellers must comply with state law.

The court of appeals therefore sent the cases back to the district courts from which they came and gave the Justice Department two choices. The Department can discontinue the prosecutions until such time as it is authorized to spend money on them (if that time ever comes) or it can satisfy the district court that it has evidence that the defendants failed to comply with state law. Growing medical marijuana without a permit would be an obvious example of violating state law in a way that would permit federal prosecution.

Prosecutors cannot put the prosecutions “on hold” forever because defendants have the right to a speedy trial. Unless Congress suddenly changes course and authorizes funding for the prosecutions, the Justice Department will probably be forced to dismiss prosecutions of any medical marijuana defendants who complied with state law.

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