Federal Legislation Protecting State Implementation of Medical Marijuana Laws Remains in Effect – for Now

marijuana dispensaryMore than half of the states in the U.S. now allow the use of medical marijuana to some extent. At the same time, federal law still treats marijuana as having “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1)(B), (c)(I)(c)(10). This has, obviously, created conflicts between federal and state law enforcement. Congress relieved this tension somewhat in 2014, when it passed legislation known as the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment as part of a spending bill. This amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending funds on law enforcement activities that interfere with lawful state medical marijuana systems, which range from the extensive in California to the restrictive in Texas. Texas marijuana lawyers are aware, however, that officials in the new White House administration have sought to use federal resources against state medical marijuana. So far, the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment remains in force.

California was the first state to allow the use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. Voters approved Proposition 215 in November 1996, also known as the “Compassionate Use Act.” Cal. Health and Safety Code § 11362.5. Twenty years later, in November 2016, voters in that state approved Proposition 64, which authorized the sale, purchase, and possession of limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Id. at § 11362.1. Most states have not gone this far, but states that allow medical marijuana in some form outnumber those that do not. Texas is among the states that allow medical marijuana use, although it is strictly limited to “low-THC cannabis” to treat “intractable epilepsy.” Tex. Health & Safety Code Ch. 487, Tex. Occ. Code Ch. 169.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected at least two challenges to the applicability of federal marijuana laws over state medical marijuana laws. The court rejected a common-law medical necessity defense in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001). Justice Thomas, writing for the court, noted that federal criminal law generally does not recognize common-law defenses unless Congress specifically includes them in a statute. He concluded that “a medical necessity exception for marijuana is at odds with the terms of the Controlled Substances Act.” Id. at 491. The court held that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows a federal prohibition of marijuana production, distribution, and possession, regardless of state medical marijuana laws, in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).

Congress passed the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment in 2014, after rejecting it six times since 2003. The amendment states that the DOJ may not use funds in 32 specific states and the District of Columbia to interfere with the implementation of “State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Pub. L. 113-235 § 538, 128 Stat. 2217 (Dec. 16, 2014). Congress renewed the amendment in 2015, and several federal courts have affirmed the view that it effectively prohibits DOJ action against acts that comply with state law. See U.S. v. Marin Alliance for Med. Marijuana, 139 F.Supp.3d 1039 (N.D. Cal. 2015); U.S. v. McIntosh, 833 F.3d 1163 (9th Cir. 2016).

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified marijuana attorney in West Texas, has defended people against charges in state and federal courts since 1992. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced criminal justice advocate.

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Photo credit: Plazak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.