On August 16, 2016 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on the ten consolidated case appeals from criminal defendants from California and Washington. The petitioners were allegedly involved in the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana. While both California and Washington allow the medical use of marijuana, the federal government does not recognize medical marijuana and treats medical use like any other illegal use of a controlled substance. However, a congressional amendment to a spending bill called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 (Section 542) prohibits the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using federal funds to prevent states with medical marijuana laws from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” An identical amendment in a previous appropriations bill has been used to discontinue an injunction, but neither the above law, nor any similar law, has ever been used to stop the DOJ from prosecuting a criminal case involving medical marijuana.
The court rejected the DOJ’s argument that the bill only prohibited them from taking legal action against the state and decided that by prosecuting individuals for state-sanctioned conduct the DOJ had prevented the state from giving practical effect to its laws. The court remanded the cases to their district courts and ordered that if the DOJ wanted to continue to prosecute the cases, the defendants were entitled to evidentiary hearings to determine if they were in strict compliance with state law.
The petitioners argued that implementation “involved all aspects of putting law into practical effect,” including penalties and enforcement mechanisms for unauthorized conduct. Thus, the DOJ should only be able to prosecute an individual when that “person’s activities are clearly outside the scope of a state’s medical marijuana laws.” However the court ruled that the DOJ only prevents the implementation of state medical marijuana laws when it prosecutes individuals whose conduct is completely authorized by state law.
It will be very interesting to see the results of the defendants’ hearings regarding their compliance with state law. Particularly, just how strict is "strict compliance." Can a marijuana business be prosecuted federally for cultivation and distribution because a manager forgot to wear their state issued badge to work in the marijuana industry one time and was cited for it? Or will courts require proof of serious violations of state law, such as selling to the black market, before allowing the DOJ to proceed with the case? It will be up to the district courts to interpret how this ruling applies to marijuana businesses and individuals that are charged federally.