Federal Marijuana Law

The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. § 811), which does not recognize the difference between medical and recreational use of marijuana. These laws are generally applied only against persons who possess, cultivate, or distribute large quantities of marijuana.

Under federal law, marijuana is treated like every other controlled substance, such as cocaine and heroin. The federal government places every controlled substance in a schedule, in principle according to its relative potential for abuse and medicinal value. Under the CSA, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that the federal government views marijuana as highly addictive and having no medical value. Doctors may not "prescribe" marijuana for medical use under federal law, though they can "recommend" its use under the First Amendment.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), charged with enforcing federal drug laws, has taken a substantial interest in medical marijuana patients and caregivers in general, and large cultivation and distribution operations more specifically. Over the past few years, dozens of people have been targets of federal enforcement actions. Many of them have either been arrested or had property seized. More than a hundred are currently in prison or are facing charges or ongoing criminal or civil investigations for their cultivation or distribution of medical marijuana.

The DEA, like local enforcement agencies, can choose how to make the best use of its time. Ideally, the DEA will leave medical marijuana patients and their caregivers alone. But federal law does not yet recognize medical marijuana, and the DEA is currently allowed to use the Controlled Substances Act to arrest people for its use. In many pending and past cases, the DEA and U.S. Attorney's office have used exaggerated plant numbers and inflammatory rhetoric, as well as informants who trade jail time for testimony, to justify enforcing federal laws against medical marijuana patients and caregivers in California and other states.

Federal marijuana laws are very serious, and punishment for people found guilty is frequently very steep. Federal law still considers marijuana a dangerous illegal drug with no acceptable medicinal value. In several federal cases, judges have ruled that medical marijuana cannot be used as a defense, though defense attorneys should attempt to raise the issue whenever possible during trial. Federal law applies throughout California and the United States, not just on federal property. The key to federal property is that they are more likely than non-federal property to have federal officials monitoring it who will bust medical marijuana patients. Most likely, even if a patient is arrested and charged with a minor possession offense, he will be referred to the state authorities where he can assert a medical marijuana defense.

There are two types of federal sentencing laws: sentencing guidelines, enacted by the United States Sentencing Commission, and mandatory sentencing laws, enacted by Congress. The Sentencing Commission was created in 1987 to combat sentencing disparities across jurisdictions. The current mandatory minimum sentences were enacted in a 1986 drug bill.

Federal sentencing guidelines take into account not only the amount of marijuana but also past convictions. Not all marijuana convictions require jail time under federal sentencing guidelines, but all are eligible for imprisonment. If convicted and sentenced to jail, a minimum of 85% of that sentence must be served. The higher the marijuana amount, the more likely one is to be sentenced to jail time, as opposed to probation or alternative sentencing. Low-level offenses, even with multiple prior convictions, may end up with probation for the entire sentence of one to twelve months, and no jail time required. Possession of over 1 kg of marijuana with no prior convictions carries a sentence of six to twelve months with a possibility of probation and alternative sentencing. Over 2.5 kg with no criminal record carries a sentence of at least six months in jail; with multiple prior convictions, a sentence might be up to two years to three years in jail with no chance for probation.

In United States v. Booker (2005), a Supreme Court decision from January 2005, the court ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines (as outlined above) are advisory and no longer mandatory. However, many federal judges continue to give great deference to the guidelines.

In addition to the sentencing guidelines, there are statutory mandatory minimum sentences, which remain in effect after United States v. Booker and primarily target offenses involving large amounts of marijuana. There is a five-year mandatory minimum for cultivation of 100 plants or possession of 100kgs, and there is a ten-year mandatory minimum for these offenses if the defendant has a prior felony drug conviction. Cultivation or possession of 1000kg or 1000 plants triggers a ten-year mandatory minimum, with a twenty-year mandatory sentence if the defendant has one prior felony drug conviction, and a life sentence with two prior felony drug convictions. To avoid a five-year mandatory minimum, it is advisable to stay well below 100 plants, including any rooted cuttings or clones.

Conflict between State and Federal Law

As of this printing, the federal government claims that marijuana is not medicine and in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the United States Supreme Court held that the federal government has the constitutional authority to prohibit marijuana for all purposes. Thus, federal law enforcement officials may prosecute medical marijuana patients, even if they grow their own medicine and even if they reside in a state where medical marijuana use is protected under state law. The Court indicated that Congress and the Food and Drug Administration should work to resolve this issue.

The Raich decision does not say that the laws of California (or any other medical marijuana state) are unconstitutional; nor does it invalidate them in any way. Also, it does not say that federal officials must prosecute patients. Decisions about prosecution are still left to the discretion of the federal government.

According to a post-Raich statement by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the ruling does not overturn California law permitting the use of medical marijuana. Lockyer also underscored the role of local law enforcement in upholding state, not federal, law. A superior court has rejected the County of San Diego's claim in a lawsuit filed against the State that California's medical marijuana laws are preempted by federal law. As of this printing, that case is pending on appeal.

States have recognized marijuana's medical value and have either passed laws through their legislatures or adopted them by initiative. In support of the numerous states that have taken responsibility for the health and welfare of their people, and have implemented medical marijuana laws, ASA is fighting for states' ability and right to pass and enforce their own laws, regardless of federal law.