Appeals court: DOJ must back off in medical marijuana states

Aug. 17, 2016 -- Medical marijuana businesses cannot be prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice if the enterprises are in compliance with applicable state laws, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In making the ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sent back to lower courts 10 cases brought by the federal agency involving medical marijuana dispensaries and growers in California and Washington state, to determine whether the defendants in those cases were in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. The appeals court had been asked to rule on whether the Justice Department had proper authority to press forward with federal drug charges in the cases.

The case revolves around Justice’s interpretation of a 2014 law passed by Congress (the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment), which prohibits the department from using federal funds to prevent states from "implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." The DOJ interpreted that law to mean it couldn't stop state governments from carrying out their medical marijuana laws — not that DOJ couldn't prosecute cases against individuals or businesses in those states.

But the appeals court held up an earlier district court ruling which disagreed with DOJ’s reading. The district court ruled (among other things) that the federal agency’s interpretation “defies language and logic" and "tortures the plain meaning of the statute." The appeals court noted that “At a minimum, (Rohrabacher-Farr) prohibits DOJ from spending funds from relevant appropriations acts for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by the State Medical Marijuana Laws and who fully complied with such laws.“

The three-judge panel added that their view was based on a plain reading of the 2014 law. “It is a 'fundamental canon of statutory construction' that, 'unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning,'” they wrote.

Ruling: U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. vs. McIntosh