A landmark court ruling handed down in August blocks the DEA and other law enforcement agencies from spending money to arrest or prosecute people who break federal drug laws but obey state medical marijuana rules.
The ruling by an appeals court based in California enforces legislation passed repeatedly by Congress in recent years. Those laws prevent the Department of Justice from spending federal dollars to stamp out medical cannabis operations in states where medicinal use of the drug is legal.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Aug. 16 that several defendants on the West Coast should have their charges dismissed as long as they “strictly complied” with state laws. The cases came from Washington, which legalized cannabis in 2012, and California, which is expected to do the same in November.
MMJ states free from federal intervention
Medical cannabis is legal under the statutes of 25 states, with another 16 allowing a limited, non-intoxicating form of the drug to treat severe epilepsy. But the drug remains illegal under federal law, a fact that technically gives the DEA power to crack down on the states.
Without money from Congress, however, the agency has no way to enforce federal anti-pot laws against legitimate patients. The cases made it to the appellate court because the DOJ said it interpreted the congressional legislation as allowing continued prosecutions – even though the clear language of the new law says otherwise.
The 9th Circuit remanded the case to a federal district court to determine whether the defendants fully obeyed state medical marijuana laws. But regardless of the outcome, the ruling means the DEA can no longer arrest, charge, or prosecute legal patients.
Appeal from DOJ unlikely to suceed
The DOJ could appeal the ruling, first to a larger 9th Circuit panel, then to the U.S. Supreme Court. But with a split of four conservative justices and four liberals, it’s unlikely an appeal would succeed.
The August ruling came from three appellate judges, including two Republican appointees with a strong record of opinions favoring police. But Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain warned MMJ providers they’re not immune from federal laws.
“Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding,” O’Scannlain wrote.
The ruling will immediately have widespread effects. With the exception of Idaho, every state covered by the 9th Circuit allows medical cannabis, while Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have also legalized the drug for recreational use.
The greatest impact may be felt in California, the nation’s most populous state. Medicinal pot has been legal there since 1996, and voters will likely legalize it completely on Nov. 8. Several of the defendants operated dispensaries in Los Angeles and were charged by federal prosecutors with distributing 100 or more cannabis plants.
But assuming it isn’t overturned, the case will ultimately change how the DEA treats state legalization everywhere in the United States. If the Supreme Court does affirm the ruling, it would apply everywhere, and even if that doesn’t happen, the agency couldn’t enforce anti-drug laws unevenly across the country.
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