Appellate Court Decision Addresses Conflict Between Federal and State Medical Marijuana Laws

More than half of the states in the U.S. have enacted laws allowing marijuana use for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription. A few states have gone even further by decriminalizing the recreational use of the drug. Under federal law, however, marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance, and the federal government shows no signs of relaxing its stance. Even in states that have, to varying degrees, decriminalized the cultivation, distribution, purchase, and possession of marijuana, federal authorities may still pursue charges. A ruling issued by a federal appellate court in August 2016 could significantly alter the power dynamic between the federal and state governments on this issue. The court ruled that a clause in an appropriations bill passed by Congress in 2015 effectively prohibits federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related charges against people whose alleged conduct was permissible under applicable state laws.

Currently, 28 U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana for at least some uses. Seventeen states, including Texas, now allow the use of certain low-THC cannabis products for specified medical purposes. Texas, for example, allows the use of low-THC cannabis with a doctor’s prescription for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 487.001 et seq., Tex. Occ. Code § 169.001(3).

Despite this multitude of state laws, the federal government often continues to enforce federal marijuana laws in those states. Enforcement against individual users by federal law enforcement is relatively rare, but businesses engaged in cultivating and dispensing medical marijuana have found themselves the targets of federal investigations and prosecutions.

In 2015, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2016. Pub. L. 114-113, 129 Stat. 2242 (Dec. 18, 2015). The bill restricts federal law enforcement activity in 40 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot use funds authorized by the bill in any of those states or territories “to prevent…them from implementing their own laws that” allow medical marijuana cultivation, distribution, and use. Pub. L. 114-113 § 542, 129 Stat. 2333. The list of states includes Texas but omits the states that, at the time of the bill’s passage in 2015, had not authorized marijuana use of any sort.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a consolidated appeal by 10 defendants, all of whom argued that § 542 of the CAA required the dismissal of the charges against them. Their allegedly criminal activities included operating marijuana dispensaries in California and growing operations in both California and Washington. All of the activities that led to the federal criminal charges, the defendants argued, were legal under state laws.

The appellate court held that § 542 of the CAA prohibited the use of federal funds to prosecute alleged offenses that are “completely authorized by state law.” United States v. McIntosh, et al., No. 15-10117, slip op. at 32 (9th Cir., Aug. 16, 2016). It remanded the cases to the district courts to determine whether the defendants met this standard. If so, the Ninth Circuit left it up to the district courts to determine “the precise remedy that would be appropriate.” Id.

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.

Board-certified marijuana lawyer Michael J. Brown has advocated on behalf of people facing alleged state and federal charges in the courts of West Texas for over 20 years. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and experienced team, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Medical Marijuana Laws Cause Shifts in Court Rulings on Marijuana Odor and Probable Cause for Search Warrants, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 7, 2016

Texas Law that Took Effect Last Year Bans 1,000 Chemicals Potentially Used in Synthetic Marijuana, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 15, 2016

Marijuana Use Is a Human Right, According to Ruling from Mexico’s Supreme Court, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 1, 2016


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