Congressional Medical Marijuana Bill Lifts Ban on Evidence in Federal Court

October 27, 2009
Washington, D.C. -- U.S. Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) and more than twenty original bipartisan co-sponsors introduced legislation today that would allow defendants in medical marijuana cases the ability to use medical evidence at trial, a right not currently afforded them. Because of a June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Raich, the government has the discretion to enforce federal marijuana laws even in medical marijuana states. The Raich ruling also allows federal prosecutors to exclude evidence of medical use or state law compliance in federal trials, all but guaranteeing convictions of medical marijuana patients and providers.

Last week, the U.S. Attorney General issued guidelines to federal prosecutors discouraging them from prosecuting cases in which patients and providers are "in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws." Unfortunately, the guidelines neither direct U.S. Attorneys to abandon the more than two-dozen pending federal medical marijuana cases, nor allow defendants the ability to use medical evidence to exonerate themselves. "This is a common sense bill that will help stop the waste of law enforcement and judicial resources that have been spent prosecuting individuals who are following state law," Rep. Farr said on Tuesday. "We need strict drug laws, but we also need to apply a little common sense to how they’re enforced. This legislation is about treating defendants in cases involving medical marijuana fairly, plain and simple."

During the Bush Administration, more than a hundred federal cases were prosecuted by U.S. Attorneys against medical marijuana patients and providers who were prevented from using medical evidence at trial. Because of an inability to properly defend themselves, scores of people have been convicted and have received sentences of up to 20 years in federal prison. While the Justice Department guidelines may result in fewer federal prosecutions, they are unlikely to assist defendants currently being prosecuted. Underscoring the need for the "Truth in Trials" Act, San Diego U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt, a Bush appointee, recently responded to the guidelines by claiming she still does not have to prove a violation of state law before prosecuting someone under federal law.

"The 'Truth in Trials' Act will restore the balance of justice and bring fundamental fairness to federal medical marijuana trials," said Caren Woodson, Government Affairs Director with Americans for Safe Access, the legislation's endorser. "This legislation complements the recent Justice Department guidelines for federal prosecutors and is now more necessary than ever."

Routinely, federal prosecutors seek long prison sentences in medical marijuana cases. Charles C. Lynch, a locally licensed medical marijuana dispensary operator from Morro Bay, California who had the support of his City Council and local Chamber of Commerce, was prosecuted and convicted under the Bush Administration. Although Lynch was accused by the federal government of violating state law, he could not use evidence of his compliance with state law at trial. "I was denied an affirmative defense despite my strict adherence to local and state medical marijuana laws," said Lynch. "Passage of this bill will allow jurors to hear the entire story." Lynch is currently released on bail pending his appeal.

The "Truth in Trials" bill has been introduced by Congress in past sessions, but is especially relevant now that the Obama Administration has changed federal policy on medical marijuana. At the time of introduction, the "Truth in Trials" bill had been endorsed by a diverse group of more than three-dozen advocacy, health, and legal organizations, including Americans for Safe Access (ASA), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA), National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), and AIDS Action Council. The "Truth in Trials" bill is likely to be referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. A companion bill has yet to be introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Contact ASA at 510-681-6361 to coordinate interviews with current federal defendants and those convicted without a defense

For further information:

"Truth in Trials" legislation introduced today: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/Truth_in_Trials_Act.pdf
Congressional cosponsors of "Truth in Trials" Act: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/article.php?id=5825
More information on the "Truth in Trials" Act: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/section.php?id=354

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