The federal government can no longer prosecute state-compliant medical marijuana businesses.
This week was a win for medical marijuana. A panel of three judges (two of whom are Republicans) on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which oversees states like California and Arizona, unanimously ruled that the Department of Justice can no longer prosecute state-compliant cannabis businesses in medical marijuana states.
The decision was derived from appeals the court had consolidated through ten different cases in California and Washington, in which growers and dispensaries argued that their federal indictments should be dismissed. The court ruled that the DOJ could no longer spend money on prosecuting federal marijuana cases in which the defendants are compliant with state law. The ten cases themselves were remanded back to the district court to ensure that they were in fact state-compliant, explained Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Stroup calls this decision a "procedural victory" for the marijuana law reform movement. This medical defense makes it easier for criminal defense attorneys to defend medical marijuana businesses in federal cases.
"What I think will happen is the Feds will be far more cautious about getting involved in state prosecutions. And where they do get involved, if they come in and make an arrest, the criminal defense lawyer can demand that evidentiary hearing and file a motion to dismiss," Stroup said. "The threat of that could discourage the Feds from spending time and resources in the area."
With a lesser threat of federal prosecution, cannabis businesses, researchers, and innovators can go forward with greater gusto than before. "If the state medical marijuana law includes a provision regarding research, they would be protected now from federal interference," said Stroup. "It doesn't overturn the recent DEA decision to leave marijuana in Schedule I, it just highlights the contradictory nature of that decision."
While the decision doesn't make research any easier, it protects innovation that can happen around medical marijuana businesses and industry in a legal state, said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and police for the Drug Policy Alliance. "A lot of the time this innovation takes financial risk. The fear that the federal government can come in and take it all away at any minute has stifled innovation in many places," she said. "Having this assurance, [people] can take more business risks and increase the level of innovation in the [cannabis] industry."
But this decision is only good for one year, Reiman noted, since it dictates just the 2017 budget. "Depending on who's in office, it's possible they will remove this from the budget and open the door for the federal government to intervene." However, the likelihood of federal interference is reduced by passing more state-by-state marijuana legalization bills this November and electing politicians friendly to marijuana law reform, she added.
Still, this decision is a "really is a big deal", according to Professor Sam Kamin of the University of Denver's Sturm College of law, who studies marijuana regulation. He said now that the largest federal court has asserted their decision, the federal prosecutors can't enforce the Controlled Substances Act against lawful businesses. And the fact that more states have started to get on board with medical marijuana is a good sign for the industry."So that's half the nation, or the 25 states (and counting) to have already passed medical marijuana laws."
That leaves half the country to catch up.