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Federal Court Protects Medical Marijuana States, But Industry Remains Vulnerable

Last night, TIME magazine reported that the marijuana industry won a "huge victory" late Tuesday when a federal court ruled that the Department of Justice (which holds the DEA's reins) can't spend money to prosecute people involved in state-legalized medical marijuana industries. But the court's decision is less of a victory and more a reassertion of the status quo.

Right now, marijuana - for recreational or medical use - is federally prohibited, so every state that has legalized marijuana is violating federal law. The only thing protecting medical marijuana patients and providers from prosecution is a rider in the federal budget saying that the Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot spend money to charge people who are compliant with their state's medical marijuana laws. Congress has to approve that rider with each new budget, so the medical marijuana industry is on shaky ground in America.

The rider was really what was being debated before the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 9th Circuit, which oversees the western states. Patrick Rodenbush - a spokesman for the DOJ - argued that the rider only prevented them from "impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws," meaning they could still prosecute individuals and businesses caught violating federal prohibition. It was an attempt at legalistic hairsplitting that drew the ire of Congress.

“The Justice Department’s interpretation of the amendment defies logic,” Congressman Sam Farr (D - California) said last year while the case was being heard. “No reasonable person thinks prosecuting patients doesn’t interfere with a state’s medical marijuana laws. Lawyers can try to mince words but Congress was clear: Stop going after patients and dispensaries.” 

The three-justice panel unanimously agreed. But they also poured cold water on celebrating the decision. In the written decision, Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain reminded advocates, businesses and patients that Congress could drop the rider anytime. That would allow the DOJ to prosecute not only people and businesses who are currently violating prohibition but also those that have broken federal law while the rider was in effect.

“Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding,” Judge O’Scannlain wrote in the decision.

So the ruling really emphasizes the precarious state of medical marijuana in America, one that's not likely to improve as long as the DEA insists that cannabis has no accepted medical use in America - even though 26 states have legalized it.

The federal court's decision is not a huge win for the medical marijuana businesses and patients, but it does help them avoid a huge loss. Two branches of the federal government are now onboard with protecting state-legalized medical marijuana industry, leaving only the executive branch in opposition. Had the judicial disagreed with the legislative, states with medical marijuana programs might have found themselves in a legal limbo.

But the medical marijuana industry can't declare victory until cannabis is recognized and legalized as medicine on the federal level. In the meantime, we'll have to wait and see if the Obama Administration intends to appeal the federal court's ruling and take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

h/t Huffington Post


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