Moral Low Ground

US Government

Major Court Victory for Bay Area Medical Marijuana Dispensary MAMM

Medical marijuana. (Photo: Dank Depot/Flickr Creative Commons)

Medical marijuana. (Photo: Dank Depot/Flickr Creative Commons)

In a precedent-setting case, a federal judge has ruled that the Justice Department is violating federal law by using federal funds to target medical marijuana dispensaries which abide by state law.

The ruling by Judge Charles Breyer of the US District Court for Northern California in San Francisco blasted the Drug Enforcement Administration’s actions against the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM) as “at odds with fundamental notions of the rule of law.” The Fairfax dispensary was the first in California to open its doors to patients after that state legalized medical marijuana in 1996. It operated from 1998 until it was closed by federal injunction in 2011. Owner Lynnette Shaw will now be permitted to reopen, and if the ruling is upheld on appeal, it would halt federal action against state-legal medical cannabis dispensaries including Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside Health Center.

At issue was the the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from using federal funds to “prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” The amendment effectively banned the DEA from targeting medical marijuana dispensaries that comply with state law. The Obama administration and the DEA, however, interpreted the amendment differently, arguing that the measure only bars federal action against the states themselves, not businesses or individuals. But Judge Breyer ruled that such an interpretation “tortures the plain meaning of the statute.”

Amendment co-authors Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) demanded that the Justice Department’s inspector general investigate federal agents’ illegal use of taxpayers’ money to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana operations.

“The implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do so,” the congressmen wrote. “For the DOJ to argue otherwise is a tortuous twisting of the text… and common sense and the use of federal funds to prevent these individuals and businesses from acting in accordance with state law is clearly in violation of Rohrabacher-Farr.”

Breyer concurred. “It defies language and logic for the government to argue that it does not prevent California from implementing its medical marijuana laws by shutting down these… heavily regulated medical marijuana dispensaries,” he wrote in his ruling.

“The mayor of the Town of Fairfax [stated] MAMM was operating as a model business in careful compliance with its local use permit in a ‘cooperative and collaborative relationship’ with the community,” Breyer added. Indeed, Mayor Larry Bragman noted that MAMM was the only legal supplier of medical marijuana in Marin County and that patients suffering from ailments such as breast and prostate cancer now lack local access to a drug with “proven medical benefits.”

MAMM owner Shaw told the San Francisco Chronicle she was “very happy and… very relieved that I will get to return to my life’s work,” even though she does not have the funds to immediately reopen and has started a crowdfunding campaign that has raised nearly $2,400 as of Tuesday morning.

“We won the war,” said Shaw, “and I’m the first POW to be released.”

Medical marijuana advocates hailed Judge Breyer’s decision.

“This court decision makes clear that the Justice Department is not above the law and must leave legal state medical marijuana dispensaries alone,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Cancer, MS, AIDS and other medical marijuana patients can sleep a little easier tonight knowing that a federal judge will protect them and the people providing them their medicine.”

“As more states legalize marijuana for medical or non-medical use the pressure to change federal law will continue to grow,” Piper added. “There is a clear bipartisan majority in Congress for letting states set their own marijuana policies.”

“This is a big win for medical marijuana patients and their providers, and a significant victory in our efforts to end the federal government’s war on marijuana,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, wrote in a statement. “Federal raids of legitimate medical marijuana businesses aren’t just stupid and wasteful, but also illegal.”

The targeting of MAMM was part of a wider effort by federal authorities, led locally by US Attorney Melinda Haag, against state-legal medical marijuana operations. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to deal with the issue of medical marijuana, which was then legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, with a ‘hands-off’ approach. Obama promisedthat he would not “be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws” governing medical marijuana. But once elected president Obama broke his word, with California medical marijuana dispensaries targeted in an aggressive federal crackdown that saw many medicine providers shut down despite their state-legal status.

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