Pubdate: Sat, 20 Aug 2016
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald (Hilo, HI)
Copyright: 2016 Hawaii Tribune Herald


Afederal appeals court gave medical marijuana advocates what seemed 
like a big win this week with a unanimous ruling that the federal 
government cannot prosecute people who grow and distribute medicinal 
cannabis if they comply with state laws.

The decision affirms a mandate from Congress that barred the U.S. 
Department of Justice in 2014 and 2015 from bringing cases against 
legitimate pot shops in states that have medical marijuana laws. It 
makes clear that if operators are meticulously following the rules, 
they shouldn't have to worry about the feds coming after them.

But this week's ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came with 
a big warning: This is a temporary victory. Until the federal 
government legalizes marijuana or until lawmakers adopt a permanent 
policy shielding states from federal enforcement, medical marijuana 
shops still face the possibility of prosecution in the future.

More than half the states allow people to grow, sell and use 
marijuana for medical purposes. But advocates complained they were 
still being raided and prosecuted by federal law enforcement because 
the drug remains illegal under federal law. In 2014 and again in 
2015, Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., 
successfully pushed through an amendment that prohibited the 
Department of Justice from spending funds in those budget years to 
prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws. (Their 
amendment does not apply to the recreational use of marijuana, which 
four states and the District of Columbia allow, and which California 
will consider allowing with Proposition 64 in November.)

However, federal prosecutions continued, and 10 growers and 
dispensary operators in California and Washington appealed their 
cases, arguing they were protected by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment. 
The 9th Circuit agreed - for the most part. The court sent the cases 
back to district courts, where the operators would have an 
opportunity to prove they "strictly complied" with state laws. If 
they did, they should not face charges. If not, they could still be prosecuted.

Advocates hailed the decision as a major setback for the federal 
government's tough-on-marijuana policies. But Judge Diarmuid F. 
O'Scannlain, writing in a lengthy footnote to the ruling, threw cold 
water on that idea.

"To be clear," the judge wrote, the amendment "does not provide 
immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses." Nor, he 
added, "does any state law 'legalize'" marijuana. All the 
Rohrabacher-Farr amendment does is temporarily block the Justice 
Department from spending money on medical marijuana prosecutions; it 
will expire in September, unless extended. Congress could restore 
funding tomorrow, or the next president could reverse the Obama 
administration's detente, and prosecutions could restart. That leaves 
medical marijuana businesses and users in legal limbo and undermines 
public confidence if people are asked to vote to legalize something 
that might not ultimately be allowed under federal law.

One way or another, the conflict between state and federal laws must 
be addressed. The current situation - in which marijuana is illegal 
at the federal level but half of the states allow medical marijuana, 
four states allow recreational use and five more will consider 
recreational legalization in November - is untenable.

- - Los Angeles Times
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom