August 2016 – Advocates cheered when a three-judge panel of the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on August 16 that the US Department of Justice may not prosecute medical marijuana operations that are in compliance with state law. The ruling rested on the Rohrabacher/Farr amendment, a rider to the federal budget bill that prohibits the DOJ from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their own medical marijuana laws.
Five of those who appealed to the court allegedly ran four marijuana stores in the Los Angeles area known as Hollywood Compassionate Care (HCC) and Happy Days, and nine indoor marijuana grow sites in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. As well as criminal charges, the government also instituted forfeiture proceedings.
Four codefendants from Sanger in Fresno county were indicted for manufacturing when over 30,000 marijuana plants were allegedly found on their property.
Their cases are now remanded to their district courts, and the panel instructed that if DOJ wishes to continue these prosecutions, the appellants are entitled to evidentiary hearings to determine whether their conduct was authorized by state law. Usually in federal court, no mention of a medical marijuana defense is permitted.
Although the budget rider, which passed Congress for the past two years, is set to expire on September 30, it is expected that the budget will be extended through the election, and that the rider will again be passed into law next year without going to the floor of Congress.
The ruling highlights the need for more permanent legislation at the federal level to protect medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal. The court ruled that “district courts should consider the temporal nature of the lack of funds along with the appellants’ rights to a speedy trial.”
Gun Rights Ruling
On August 31, a separate three-judge panel from the same court ruled that a Nevada woman could be denied her right to purchase a gun because she had a medical marijuana card. This time, advocates were not so pleased.
The case, Wilson v. Lynch., hinged on an “Open Letter” sent in September 2011 by the ATF to all federal firearms licensees, stating that that “any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her State has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, and is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition.” The letter dictated that persons must answer “yes” to question 11e on the ATF Over-The-Counter Transaction Record, which asks, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana?”
“Wilson could have amassed legal firearms before acquiring a registry card, and [federal statutes] and the Open Letter would not impede her right to keep her firearms or to use them to protect herself and her home,” the court ruled. “In addition, Wilson could acquire firearms and exercise her right to self-defense at any time by surrendering her registry card, thereby demonstrating to a firearms dealer that there is no reasonable cause to believe she is an unlawful drug user.”
Most objectionable in the decision was the Court’s statement that: “It is beyond dispute that illegal drug users, including marijuana users, are likely as a consequence of that use to experience altered or impaired mental states that affect their judgment and that can lead to irrational or unpredictable behavior. They are also more likely to have negative interactions with law enforcement officers because they engage in criminal activity.”
Both rulings apply only to the states and territories within the 9th circuit (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam).