Pubdate: Thu, 06 Aug 2015
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Bob Egelko


Justice Dept. Sidesteps Limits Set by Congress

In a newly disclosed memorandum, President Obama's Justice Department 
has told federal prosecutors they can file criminal charges against 
medical marijuana users and suppliers and shut down pot dispensaries, 
despite a congressional ban on federal interference with medical 
marijuana laws in California and other states.

The Justice Department had previously made its intentions clear by 
refusing to drop pending marijuana prosecutions and pursuing 
forfeiture actions against dispensaries, including Oakland's huge 
Harborside Health Center. But the Feb. 27 memo, made public Wednesday 
by Tom Angell of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, provides the 
department's rationale for considering the congressional spending 
restrictions largely toothless.

The budget language passed in mid-December prohibits the department 
from using its funds to stop states from "implementing their own 
laws" on medical marijuana. But Patty Merkamp Stemler, chief of the 
Justice Department's Appellate Section, told federal prosecutors the 
congressional action "addresses actions directed against states, not 

The restrictions, Stemler wrote, bar the department "from impeding 
the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws, not 
from taking action against particular individuals or entities, even 
if they are acting compliant with state law."

She noted that Congress had considered, but failed to pass, 
legislation that would have explicitly forbidden federal prosecution 
for medical marijuana use that states have legalized. The 
congressional budget restrictions prohibit the department only from 
challenging a state's medical marijuana law in court or from suing a 
state or its officials over the law, Stemler said.

Low-priority patients

As a matter of policy, Stemler said, the Justice Department does not 
want its prosecutors to go after seriously ill marijuana users or 
their caregivers, or to prosecute dispensaries that "adhere to a 
strong and effective state regulatory system."

She was referring to policies previously stated by Obama 
administration officials that tell federal prosecutors to focus on 
major drug traffickers and give their lowest priority to cases 
against patients and suppliers who are complying with state medical 
marijuana laws. Federal courts have ruled that those policies are not 
legally binding, leaving individuals powerless to require the 
government to follow them.

California lawmakers

The sponsors of last year's budget restrictions, Reps. Dana 
Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican, and Sam Farr, a Democrat 
from Carmel, say their amendment prohibited the Justice Department 
from prosecuting medical marijuana cases or seizing dispensaries that 
comply with state law. They have asked the department's inspector 
general to decide whether the department is complying with the law.

California, which became the first state to legalize medical 
marijuana in a 1996 ballot initiative, has no statewide regulatory 
system for pot growers or suppliers, a vacuum that would be filled by 
pending state legislation. The lack of controls helped to open the 
door for federal prosecutors to take forfeiture actions in 2011 that 
have led to the closure of hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries.

One forfeiture case is now before the federal appeals court in San 
Francisco, which is considering challenges to U.S. Attorney Melinda 
Haag's suit to shut down Harborside, the nation's largest licensed 
medical marijuana dispensary, serving about 108,000 patients. Another 
panel of the appeals court may soon decide whether the congressional 
budget restrictions affect the federal conviction and one-year prison 
sentence of Charles Lynch, former owner of a locally licensed pot 
dispensary in Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County).

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, has voted to renew the 
budget restrictions for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Narrow interpretation

Mike Liszewski, governmental affairs director for the marijuana 
advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said Wednesday the Justice 
Department's newly disclosed interpretation of the law was far too narrow.

A state can't "implement" its medical marijuana law, Liszewski said, 
"if patients can't use ID cards to get their medicine" because of the 
risk of prosecution.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom