DENVER (CN) — In a 4-3 ruling Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed an appeals court that allowed police officers to return seized medical marijuana to acquitted owners.
The narrowly split court ruled that because federal law does not recognize medical marijuana, police cannot deliver the drug to its owner without becoming distributors themselves.
Colorado’s medical marijuana amendment “requires law enforcement officers to return medical marijuana seized from an individual later acquitted of a state drug charge,” and marijuana products to medical marijuana patients after an acquittal,” Justice Alison Eid wrote for the majority.
The federal Controlled Substances Act, however, “prohibits the distribution of marijuana without regard to whether state law permits its use for medical purposes,” Eid added.
Therefore, “An officer returning marijuana to an acquitted medical marijuana patient will be delivering and transferring a controlled substance … in violation of the CSA. Because compliance with one law necessarily requires noncompliance with the other, there is a ‘positive conflict’ between section 14(2)(e) and the CSA such that the two cannot consistently stand together.”
The case began in May 2011 when Colorado Springs police arrested Robert Crouse, a leukemia patient, and seized 55 plants and 6.4 lbs. of prepared marijuana.
An El Paso County jury acquitted Crouse in June 2012, accepting his medical marijuana defense under state law. But the police did not return his pot until November. They had not “preserved” it, and it “was in fact useless,” Crouse said in his May 2013 lawsuit against Colorado Springs and its police department.
The state objected to the order to return the pot, on the grounds that to do so would violate the Controlled Substances Act. When El Paso County Judge Marla Prudek disagreed, the El Paso County district attorney appealed.
The Court of Appeals affirmed Prudek’s ruling, finding that law enforcement officers were granted express immunity in situations when they were simply delivering lawful drugs within the state to the drug’s rightful owner.
The supreme court minority agreed with the Court of Appeals. Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel wrote in dissent, joined by Chief Justice Nancy Rice, and Justice William Hood, that the Controlled Substances Act does indeed immunize federal and state officers from civil and criminal liability in the circumstances at issue here.
“I perceive no conflict between the CSA and section 14(2)(e) of article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution, nor do I believe that it is impossible to comply with both the Controlled Substances Act and the Colorado Constitution, as the majority implicitly and the People expressly contend,” Gabriel wrote in an 8-page dissent from the majority’s 11-page ruling.