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9th Circuit deals DOJ major setback in its bid to prosecute medical pot cases

In our post last week, we discussed how the federal government affirmed its commitment to treating marijuana as an illegal narcotic with the Drug Enforcement Administration's recent announcement that the drug would continue to be classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.  

While this might seem like a fairly major victory in the ongoing battle against marijuana legalization efforts across the nation, the federal government -- namely the Department of Justice -- was actually dealt something of a substantial defeat in this area courtesy of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just last week.

The case in question -- actually ten cases consolidated for review -- all involved individual medical marijuana patients and providers from both California and Washington state facing federal drug charges. Together, they argued on appeal that the DOJ was banned from pursuing these sorts of medical marijuana prosecutions owing to a bipartisan budget measure passed by Congress in December 2014.

Specifically, they argued that this budget measure expressly prohibited the DOJ from using federal funds to stop any of the states from implementing their own system of laws permitting the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."

For its part, the DOJ argued that the budget measure only forbade it from taking legal action against the states themselves, not individuals who violate federal drug laws.

A three-judge panel for the 9th Circuit found these latter arguments unavailing and ruled that the only way in which the DOJ could prosecute any of the cases was if it could show that any of the ten defendants violated the medical marijuana laws of their respective states. The cases were accordingly remanded back to the trail courts for these determinations.

The 9th Circuit did warn in its decision, however, that this state of affairs could change virtually anytime should Congress and/or the next administration elect to "shift enforcement priorities."

Nevertheless, legal experts have indicated that the decision, which was both unanimous and came from the largest federal circuit, was a major victory for marijuana advocacy groups.

"It's an assertion by a court that federal prosecutors cannot enforce the Controlled Substances Act against those in compliance with state medical marijuana provisions," said one law professor. "It's not forever … but it's a lot more protection that was in place prior to the ruling."

Indeed, the DOJ's options are now limited to proving violations of state law medical marijuana laws occurred, asking the 9th Circuit to reconsider the matter, or appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States, none of which are entirely favorable.

Furthermore, while this decision is not binding on other jurisdictions, it would likely prove highly persuasive should any similar legal challenges be mounted in other jurisdictions like the 7th Circuit, which covers all of Illinois.  

Stay tuned for updates …

Consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible if you are under investigation or have been charged with any manner of federal drug crime, as your rights, your freedom and your future are at stake.

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