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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fate of Medical Pot Hazy Despite Spending Bill

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - While the recently passed Congressional spending bill prohibits the federal government from using allocated funds to prevent the implementation of state laws where medical marijuana is legal, the effect of the bill in battleground states like California remains unclear.

Earlier this month, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriation Act of 2015, commonly known as a spending bill.

Tucked into page 214 of the 1,603-page bill is a provision that reads, "None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such states from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."

While the passage and signing of the bill seems to effectively put an end to the federal government's enforcement efforts against medical marijuana cultivators, distributors and users in states where it is legal and signal a major shift in drug policy, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) seemed skeptical in a phone interview with Courthouse News.

Allen St. Pierre called California "the canary in the coal mine regarding this entire policy."

St. Pierre referred to so-called Cole and Ogden memos issued by the federal government over the past five years - which were designed to provide guidance to federal prosecutors on the use of federal funds for marijuana enforcement. The most recent memo focused on preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing criminal cartels from profiting from the trade and stopping the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law to states where it is not.

St. Pierre noted that federal prosecutors in California read the Cole and Ogden memorandums regarding enforcement of marijuana laws "in the most black letter sense," allowing them to "still enjoy the subjectivity to decide whether a case should or should not go federal."

"While [U.S. Attorney] Melinda Haag and her cohorts have been memoed to death, now they have an act of Congress telling them 'Don't spend any money on this,'" St. Pierre said. "What will be telling is in the coming months, in the L.A. Basin and the San Francisco East Bay, will those raids continue?"

He called on the bill's sponsors, Republican Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Sam Farr - both from California - to be the "watchdogs."

St. Pierre said the two members of Congress "don't get a lot of bills passed in their name" and that they should "take some ownership" if they pick up the paper and read that raids are continuing despite the bill.

After the legislation passed Congressman Farr said, "The federal government will finally respect the decisions made by the majority of states that have passed medical marijuana laws. This is a great day for common sense because now our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on prosecuting criminals and not sick patients."

Farr represents California's 20th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, located in the Central Coast area of the state.

Congressman Rohrabacher said, "The enactment of this legislation will mark the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana and has instead taken an approach to respect the many states that have permitted the use of medical marijuana to some degree."

Rohrabacher represents California's 48th District in the House of Representatives, located in coastal Orange County.

The U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco referred Courthouse News to the DOJ's public affairs office in Washington D.C.

Representative Patrick Rodenbush from the D.C. office told Courthouse News, "The Department of Justice is currently reviewing the legislation."

Last week the federal government lost out on its bid to seize a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. This prompted Henry Wykowski, attorney for the dispensary, to call for federal prosecutors to reconsider other seizures in California.

At the time, Wykowski told Courthouse News, "We hope that this is a catalyst for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco to re-examine their position with respect to the other forfeiture cases and hopefully dismiss them also."

Those cases include the government's attempt to seize Harborside Health Center in San Jose and Oakland, a case that resulted in the city of Oakland taking the unusual step of suing the federal government to stop the seizure.

While that suit was dismissed for lack of standing, the city convinced the judge to stay the seizure proceedings while it appealed.

Wykowski is currently traveling outside the country and was unavailable for comment on this story.

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