Court bans Feds from prosecuting medical marijuana users
by David Gutierrez, staff writer
A federal court has ruled that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not permitted to use any of its money to prosecute people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
“If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law,” wrote Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Twenty-five states allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, while another four states plus the District of Columbia permit it for medical and recreational use. Citizens of another nine states will vote in November on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Ending the war on medical marijuana?
Yet, although the majority of states now allow regulated use of marijuana, the federal government has regularly carried out raids against people who are simply growing, selling or using medical marijuana in compliance with the laws of their states.
In 2014, Congress passed a budget rule prohibiting the DOJ from using its funds to prevent states “from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” The passage of this rule had no influence on the DOJ’s practices, however.
Now the Ninth Circuit has ruled that if the DOJ uses its budget to carry out any enforcement action against people who are following state medical marijuana laws, the department will have violated the congressional order.
This means that any DOJ action taken against legal production, sale or use of medical marijuana following the passage of the congressional rule was illegal. Following the court’s decision, five people currently facing charges in San Francisco federal court filed to have their charges dismissed.
The defendants are facing federal charges for allegedly operating marijuana stores and growing operations that are legal under California law.
“This could be the beginning of the end of the federal war on medical marijuana,” said San Francisco attorney Marc Zilversmit, who is representing one of the defendants.
But O’Scannlain warned that the court’s ruling stems only from a specific congressional rule. Thus, it only applies to people following state medical marijuana laws, not to people violating the law or participating in an illegal recreational marijuana business. O’Scannlain also warned that if Congress ever chooses to issue a different rule, people currently engaged in legal medical marijuana businesses might again be vulnerable.
“Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now,” he wrote, “and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding.”
War on Drugs still trumps science
The ruling came only a week after the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a decision upholding the highly restrictive Schedule I classification of marijuana.
To be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, a drug should have “no currently accepted medical use,” “a high potential for abuse” and be impossible to use safely under medical supervision. Thus, lethal and addictive prescription painkillers – which kill more people each year than illegal street drugs – fall in the less tightly regulated Schedule II category. Alcohol and tobacco, which are known to be far more addictive and deadly than marijuana, are not regulated as controlled substances at all.
DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said that the agency relied on an FDA conclusion that there is “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” This flies in the face of a large body of scientific data on the medical benefits of cannabis and its compounds.
Indeed, a recent National Institutes of Health review of FDA studies concluded that “based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”
The majority of U.S. residents support marijuana legalization.
Sources for this article include: