In a huge victory for the medical marijuana industry in California, a federal court on Monday ruled that the Department of Justice (DOJ) violated the law when it misused an amendment in last year's federal spending bill to prosecute legal dispensaries in the state.
Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court in northern California handed down a biting decision chastising the DOJ for its twisted interpretation of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars the department or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from taking legal action against suppliers in compliance with state regulations.
The DOJ instead used the amendment to do exactly that—claiming it only blocks the agency from challenging state laws, but not from going after individuals or businesses—and shut down one of California's oldest dispensaries, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), in the process.
"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," Breyer wrote in the decision for MAMM v. USDOJ, which could set a precedent for how the justice system addresses state-legal protection of pot businesses.
Breyer's is the first known ruling by a federal judge to rule in favor of a dispensary under the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which was only approved for one year after the spending bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014, but which is expected to be renewed by U.S. Congress.
By lifting the injunction, the decision also allows MAMM founder Lynnette Shaw to reopen the dispensary. If upheld on appeal, it will also give the same breathing room to other dispensaries including Oakland's Harborside Health Center and the Berkeley Patients Group, both of which were shut down in similar raids. The ruling "means I can have my life back," Shaw told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The ruling also redeems Breyer's 2011 approval of the injunction that shuttered MAMM's doors.
In April, U.S. House Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Orange County) and Sam Farr (D-Carmel) sent a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder stating that their amendment was intended to prevent the government from "wasting its limited law enforcement resources on prosecutions and asset forfeiture actions against medical marijuana patients and suppliers," and that the DOJ had misinterpreted its meaning.
While DOJ lawyers argued that shutting down a handful of dispensaries did not impede access to pot for most California buyers, Breyer said there was evidence that medical marijuana supplies had been "substantially impeded" by the department's actions. The DOJ's reading of the amendment "tortures the plain meaning of the statute" and is "at odds with fundamental notions of the rule of law," he wrote.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Breyer's decision shows "that the Justice Department is not above the law and must leave legal state medical marijuana dispensaries alone."
"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," Piper said.
Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project added, "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. Federal raids of legitimate medical marijuana businesses aren't just stupid and wasteful, but also illegal."