Businesses who sell medical marijuana cannot be prosecuted by the Justice Department per a ruling by a federal appeals court. The landmark decision on Tuesday prevents action by the agency as long as the cannabis company did not violate any state laws.
After reviewing 10 pending cases in California and Washington, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Justice Department to show proof state medical marijuana laws were violated. The ruling also keeps the DOJ from spending any money to prosecute any such cases by affirming legislation passed two years ago in Congress.
In 2014, a federal law was approved that banned the Justice Department from interfering with state marijuana laws by disallowing any funding for legal proceedings. Using the law, the defendants in the 10 cases asked the court to dismiss the charges since they were in compliance with state regulations.
The Circuit Court backed the defendants’ argument by sending their cases back to a lower court to ascertain compliance with medical marijuana law. In front of the three-judge panel, federal prosecutors argued the law was meant to keep the DOJ from filing legal proceedings against states, and cannabis-related businesses could still be prosecuted. The judges did not see it that way.
“If DOJ wishes to continue these prosecutions, Appellants are entitled to evidentiary hearings to determine whether their conduct was completely authorized by state law, by which we mean that they strictly complied with all relevant conditions imposed by state law on the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana,” wrote Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain.
While Congress has stopped federal funding to the DOJ for the prosecution of medical weed cases, that could quickly change.
“DOJ is currently prohibited from spending funds from specific appropriations acts for prosecutions of those who complied with state law,” the Court wrote. “But Congress could appropriate funds for such prosecutions tomorrow.”
In the opinion, the judges also noted that the future of prosecution of medical marijuana cases can depend on the upcoming presidential election. It is entirely possible that the new administration will decide to “shift enforcement priorities” and make federal action of drug cases more prominent.
Right now, federal prosecutors still have some options to pursue. They could request the Ninth Circuit reconsider their medical marijuana decision or take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to Peter Carr, a spokesperson for the DOJ, the agency is currently reviewing their next step.
The court’s ruling only affects Western states covered by the Ninth Circuit. However, the verdict will likely influence any decisions by other circuits regarding future medical marijuana cases brought before them.
The ruling is certainly a win for medical cannabis advocates and attorneys that represent marijuana suppliers. Many believe the decision will bring more support for legalizing the drug and open the door to broader, less restrictive medical marijuana laws.
“This is the beginning of the end of federal prosecutions of state medical marijuana dispensary operators, growers and patients,” said Marc Zilversmit, an attorney representing five people who operate four marijuana stores in Los Angeles and nine indoor growing sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
However, the U.S. government appears to be adamant about keeping marijuana illegal at the federal level. Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced cannabis has no medical purpose and will remain a Schedule I drug, essentially keeping it on its list of dangerous substances. However, they did loosen the rules a bit to allow more medical research of cannabis.
Tom Angell with the drug policy reform group Marijuana Majority was buzzing after the court’s decision was handed down. He believes the federal government should seriously consider dropping the fight against marijuana now or suffer “an even more embarrassing defeat on appeal” later on.
Medical marijuana is currently legal in 25 states and Washington, D.C. Ten other states are putting the decision to legalize the drug on the ballot in November.
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