Pubdate: Wed, 17 Aug 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Maura Dolan


Feds Can't Prosecute Them If They Follow State Law, Court Rules.

A U.S. appeals court decided unanimously Tuesday that the federal 
government may not prosecute people who grow and distribute medical 
marijuana if they comply with state laws.

Congress in the last two years has banned the federal government from 
spending money in ways that would thwart state medical marijuana laws.

The U.S. Justice Department contended the ban did not undermine its 
right to prosecute growers and distributors under federal law, even 
in states where medical cannabis was legal.

But in the first federal appellate decision on the subject, the U.S. 
9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the ban prevents the government 
from spending money on prosecutions of people whose marijuana 
activities were legal in their states.

Still, the ruling was not a complete victory for medical marijuana activists.

Rather than simply ordering lower courts to dismiss criminal charges, 
the 9th Circuit said defendants must be given the opportunity to show 
their actions complied with state law.

The court decision involved 10 appeals brought by dispensaries and 
growers in California and the state of Washington.

Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the 
congressional bans - in the form of appropriation riders passed 
annually - stymie the government's efforts to close down 
dispensaries, the court said.

Tuesday's ruling affects only the Western states and territories of 
the 9th Circuit, but the decision is likely to influence other 
circuits. Dozens of states authorize cannabis for medical use.

Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, writing for the court, warned that the 
law remains subject to change by Congress.

"Congress could appropriate funds for such prosecutions tomorrow," 
the Reagan appointee wrote.

"Conversely," he said, "this temporary lack of funds could become a 
more permanent lack of funds if Congress continues to include the 
same rider in future appropriations bills."

The federal government could appeal Tuesday's decision to a larger 
panel of the 9th Circuit or up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I hope this is the beginning of the end of federal prosecutions of 
state medical marijuana dispensary operators, growers and patients," 
said Marc J. Zilversmit, who represented an L.A. dispensary in one of 
the cases before the court.

The federal government recently dropped a civil forfeiture action 
against a huge medical cannabis dispensary in Oakland, but Zilversmit 
said the Justice Department has fought hard to continue with criminal 

One of the cases before the court involved five defendants accused of 
running four marijuana stores in Los Angeles County and growing the 
plants at indoor locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Four other defendants were charged with growing marijuana after 
authorities said they found 30,000 plants on 60 acres of land in Fresno County.

In Washington, five people were charged with growing 562 marijuana plants.

The defendants argued that the federal government was spending money 
that was not appropriated by Congress in violation of the 
Appropriations Clause of the Constitution.

They will now be entitled to present evidence in court to try to show 
that state laws authorized their actions.

O'Scannlain called the problems with the prosecutions "temporal."

"The government had authority to initiate criminal proceedings, and 
it merely lost funds to continue them," he wrote.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom