Yesterday, after more than 17 years of litigation, a federal judge lifted an injunction against one of California’s oldest medical marijuana dispensaries. In an opinion excoriating the Department of Justice’s tortured logic, Senior Judge Charles R. Breyer of the U.S. District Court for Northern California told the Department of Justice something they rarely hear—no.
The injunction against the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which barred the dispensary from operating, can no longer be enforced in the wake of a congressional budget amendment passed last year. The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment—sponsored by Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.)—precluded the Department of Justice from spending federal funds that would interfere with state medical marijuana programs.
The Department of Justice unsuccessfully argued that the amendment only prevented actions against states themselves, not medical marijuana businesses and patients. But the court found that the DOJ’s position defied simple language and logic.
This decision is of both great and of little consequence at once. For the first time, a federal court has acknowledged the plain meaning and intent of the amendment. In doing so, the court gave teeth to Representatives Rohrabacher and Farr’s intent for how their amendment should be applied, instead of their words just being something said on the House floor.
In addition to shielding the state itself, the amendment also protects businesses and individuals acting in compliance with state law from federal interference, as the drafters intended. While other medical marijuana dispensary operators have argued this issue to other federal courts, those courts have dodged the underlying issue by finding dispensaries were not acting in compliance with state law.
Despite this landmark victory for dispensaries complying with state law, the legal acknowledgement of the amendment’s protections will not necessarily keep the Department of Justice at bay. The amendment’s prohibition was signed into law last year and is expected to be renewed in December, with the House and Senate already voting in favor of the measure earlier this summer. But a congressional spending amendment that must get renewed each year does not carry the same weight as a statutory change that would end federal prohibition of medical marijuana.
States that have legalized medical marijuana need a stronger federal solution. Tightening the purse strings of federal prosecutors is one way—and as this case demonstrates, it can have a significant effect—but underlying federal law needs to change too.
Federal legislation, such as the bipartisan CARERS Act, is one way. Rather than defensively limiting how the Department of Justice can spend its money, the CARERS Act would protect states from federal interference by affirming the right of states to set their own medical marijuana policies, reschedule medical marijuana, allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses, and eliminate barriers to medical research.
At last count, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Nationwide legal access to medical marijuana is inevitable. Enough with the tortured arguments—it’s time for the federal government to affirmatively protect states that legalize marijuana for medical use, including the patients and business owners within their borders.
Joy Haviland is a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.