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Temporary Win For California Medical Marijuana Dispensaries — 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Temporary Win For California Medical Marijuana Dispensaries — 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Posted by Marijuana Doctors on 09/12/2016 in Medical Marijuana Laws

California medical marijuana advocates celebrated what appeared to be a big win on August 16th, 2016, after a federal appeals court handed down a unanimous decision that the federal government may not prosecute individual growers and distributors of medicinal marijuana as long as they are complying with state laws.

This decision affirms a previous mandate in 2014 and 2015 in which Congress barred the U.S. Department of Justice from bringing cases against legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries, in states where medical pot is legal. The ruling makes it clear that as long as operators follow the rules meticulously, they shouldn’t be concerned that the Feds will pursue them.

The Cannabis Ruling Isn’t Permanent

This month’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling comes with a disclaimer: This is only a temporary victory. Until lawmakers put a permanent policy in place that shields states from enforcement by the Feds, or the federal government legalizes cannabis, shops selling marijuana still face the possibility of future prosecution.

While medical cannabis advocates were hailing the ruling as a major setback for the federal government’s harsh cannabis policies, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, tossed cold water on the celebration in a lengthy footnote to the decision. The amendment, the judge wrote, doesn’t provide any “immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses, adding that no state law “legalizes” marijuana.

What the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment does deliver, is a temporary block to the Department of Justice’s funding of medical cannabis prosecutions. The block expires at the end of September, unless it is extended. The ruling is far from a wholesale victory – the funding could be restored by Congress tomorrow, or the next POTUS could reverse the Obama Administration’s easing of state marijuana laws, renewing prosecutions. The ruling undermines public confidence that their vote for legalization may or may not be permitted by the federal government, and leaves medical marijuana California patients and dispensaries in legal limbo.

9th Circuit Rejects DOJ Interpretation

While the rider states that the DOJ may not utilize appropriated funds to stop states from implementing their own medicinal marijuana laws, the department argued that it doesn’t apply to the prosecution of people providing marijuana to patients, but rather, applies to litigation against states. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s three-judge panel rejected the DOJ’s interpretation of the Rohrabacher/Farr amendment unanimously, stating that federal cannabis defendants have a right to an evidentiary hearing in order to show that state law authorized their actions.

The amendment, introduced by Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) states that funds made available to the DOJ may not be used to “prevent [states] from implementing their own State laws” regarding the authorization of medical marijuana use, possession, cultivation or distribution. The 9th Circuit agreed with the defendants that while the amendment wasn’t a “model of clarity,” it does cover the criminal prosecution of individuals engaging in those activities as well as lawsuits designed to overturn or neutralize medical marijuana laws.

Federal vs. State Conflict

With more than half the states allowing individuals to grow, use and sell cannabis for medical purposes, advocates continued to complain that they were being targeted, raided and prosecuted by the Feds, because the drug is still illegal according to federal law. When federal prosecutions continued, 10 Washington and California medical marijuana growers and dispensary operators appealed their cases, citing protection under the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the defendants, but sent their cases back to district courts. The operators shouldn’t face charges if they can prove they “strictly complied” with state laws; if not, they could still face prosecution.

Many California medical marijuana advocates believe that the federal government should be providing guidance to the states, not the courts, and  several legal experts have suggested that the federal government should permit states that have their own regulations and laws for marijuana use to “opt out” of federal marijuana laws.

For example, Rohrabacher has a bill designed to make his amendment permanent. The bill would change the Controlled Substances Act, preventing individuals or businesses from being prosecuted for drug crimes by the federal government if they follow state marijuana regulations and laws. Eventually the conflict between federal and state stances on marijuana will have to be addressed – while marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, half the states permit medical marijuana use, four have legalized recreational cannabis use, and five more states are set to vote on the legalization of recreational marijuana use this November.

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