Medical Marijuana

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the federal government can’t prosecute medical marijuana groups if they are following state law.

Maura Dolan
August 17, 2016

A U.S. appeals court decided unanimously Tuesday that the federal government may not prosecute people who grow and distribute medical marijuana if they are complying 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. Department of Justice 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.

While 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 the law remains subject to change by Congress.

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

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