Congress has been made aware of federal courts’ differing views on the protection of medical marijuana

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Congressional lawmakers just got an update on how various federal courts across the country are interpreting a spending bill endorsement that has generally shielded state medical marijuana programs from Department of Health interference. Justice (DOJ).

The provision, first approved as part of the Large Scale Appropriations legislation in 2014 and renewed every year since, states that DOJ funding cannot be used to prevent states and territories from “implementing implement their own laws that authorize use, distribution, possession or cultivation”. of medical marijuana. But courts have had varying interpretations about the extent to which these protections apply, says a new report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

In its analysis, CRS examines how the cases played out in two different federal appeals courts: the Ninth Circuit and the First Circuit. The report shows how the courts have diverged on the Runner and discusses the options available to Congress to resolve this disconnect.

“On its face, the appropriations endorsement prohibits the DOJ from taking legal action directly against states to prevent them from enacting or enforcing medical marijuana laws,” the report said, released. last week. “In addition, federal courts have interpreted the endorsement to bar certain federal lawsuits against individuals or organizations that produce, distribute, or possess marijuana pursuant to state medical marijuana laws.”


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“In these cases, the defendants invoked the rider before trial, seeking the dismissal of their indictments or injunctions barring prosecution,” it says. “In contrast, courts have generally declined to enforce the endorsement outside of the context of the original criminal prosecution.”

With respect to the Ninth Circuit, judges determined in a 2016 case that “persons who fail to strictly comply with all terms of state law regarding the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana engaged in unauthorized behavior and sued these people. individuals do not violate [the rider].”

And that same court relied on that judgment as the basis for authorizing several cannabis-related lawsuits by the DOJ, including a case where two people grew cannabis in a legal state and also smoked the product while processing it for sell it. The court allowed the case to proceed because they found a lack of evidence that they “strictly” complied with the state’s medical marijuana law, as they could have proven that they were qualified patients under the program.

But while the Ninth Circuit has made it clear that patients and businesses must operate in strict compliance with national cannabis laws, a ruling in a recent case from this year by the First Circuit Court of Appeals takes a different interpretation. .

In that case, defendants who were registered to grow medical marijuana in Maine were accused of selling excess quantities, including to people in other states, which would violate both the law of the State and Federal Law.

“Following the indictment for CSA criminal violations, the defendants sought to invoke the credits endorsement to bar their prosecution,” CRS said. “They argued that the runner” must be read to prevent the DOJ, in most cases, from prosecuting people who possess state licenses to participate in medical marijuana activities. And the Justice Department urged the court to rely on the Ninth Circuit’s assessment of the jumper’s limits.

Although the panel concluded that the defendants were unprotected by the runner, the First Circuit ultimately disagreed with the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of strict adherence to state medical cannabis laws. In its ruling, the First Circuit judges said that “the potential for technical noncompliance [with state law] is real enough that no one, by reasonable effort, can ever ensure strict compliance.

“Thus, the First Circuit concluded that requiring strict adherence to state law would likely curb legal medical marijuana activities and prevent states from giving effect to their medical marijuana laws. On the other hand, the court also rejected the defendants’ broader reading of the addendum, finding that “Surely Congress did not intend the addendum to provide safe haven for all caregivers with documents apparently valid regardless of manifestly illegitimate activities”. ”

“Ultimately, while the First Circuit found that the Rider bars CSA lawsuits in at least some instances where the defendant committed minor technical violations of state medical marijuana laws, he refused to “fully define [the] precise limits of its alternative standard,” the new report states.

The CRS researchers said it’s unclear whether differences in court assessments “will make a practical difference in federal marijuana prosecutions.”

“Theoretically, the First Circuit’s analysis could make it easier for defendants to invoke the appropriations rider to bar federal prosecutions, because they could do so even if they had not been in strict compliance with the law of state,” he said. “In practice, however, resource limitations and enforcement priorities have historically meant that federal marijuana prosecutions target individuals and organizations that have blatantly failed to comply with state law.”

Finally, the report offered some thoughts on what action Congress could take on the issue in the future.

He could repeal the endorsement, modify it to define the level of non-compliance that warrants prosecution, or even expand it “to prohibit the expenditure of funds for lawsuits related to recreational marijuana or other substances.” controlled”.

Broader language to protect all state and territory marijuana programs was passed as part of House appropriations legislation in 2019 and 2020, but was ultimately not incorporated into the final package sent. at the president’s office.

CRS also spoke about how Congress might affect the change outside of the appropriations process. While it may push for more aggressive legislation to enforce prohibition, the agency acknowledged that “the most recent proposals before Congress generally seek to loosen federal restrictions on marijuana or mitigate the disparity between federal and state marijuana regulations.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently discussed plans to formally introduce a bill to legalize marijuana federally by April. The House sponsor of a separate legalization bill also gave an update on his reform agenda.

Late last year, CRS also released a report claiming that President Joe Biden can grant a massive amnesty to people who have violated federal marijuana laws, and that his administration can also decide to legalize cannabis in the country. federal level without waiting for legislators to act.

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Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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