Suit over medical marijuana crackdown thrown out
February 29, 2012
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
When federal prosecutors in California announced a crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries last fall, pot suppliers and their advocates claimed in a series of lawsuits that the Obama administration broke a promise to leave them alone if they complied with state law.
The suits have gotten a chilly reception in court, and now a federal judge in Sacramento has become the first to dismiss one of them, saying the Justice Department remains free to enforce federal drug laws.
Tuesday's ruling allows federal prosecutors to continue a campaign that has shut down a number of dispensaries in California, including the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax and several in San Francisco. A lawyer for a Sacramento collective and one of its patients said they would appeal.
The suits were filed in November by marijuana suppliers and patients in each of the state's four federal judicial districts. They relied on the Justice Department's October 2009 memo to federal prosecutors that said they should concentrate on drug trafficking networks, and "should not focus federal resources" on individuals who followed their state's medical marijuana law.
The memo followed President Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to let states set their own medical marijuana policies. Shortly after the department released the document, Santa Cruz County agreed to dismiss a suit challenging the government's authority to raid locally approved pot collectives like one that federal agents had invaded in the city of Santa Cruz.
But U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell of Sacramento said Tuesday the Justice Department memo was a statement of priorities, not a binding commitment, and did not exempt dispensaries from the federal laws against marijuana cultivation and distribution.
The memo "does not contain a promise not to enforce" federal law, and the department made no such pledges in the Santa Cruz case, Burrell said. He also said the Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have rejected arguments that seriously ill patients have a constitutional right to use marijuana with a doctor's approval.
Federal judges in Oakland and San Diego have reached similar conclusions in refusing to block federal enforcement actions, although they have not dismissed the lawsuits. The fourth suit is pending before a judge in Los Angeles.
Also pending, before a federal judge in San Francisco, is a lawsuit filed in October by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access claiming that the prosecutors' actions against dispensaries and their landlords violated the state's constitutional authority to set its own health policies.
Matthew Kumin, a lawyer for the dispensary in the Sacramento case, expressed frustration Wednesday that Burrell and the Oakland and San Diego judges issued their rulings without holding hearings.
One argument Kumin said he would present to the appeals court is that the government is acting arbitrarily by blocking research proposals on medical marijuana, then asserting that it has no medical value.