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Today, U.S. Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA) sent a letter Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice questioning whether the continued medical marijuana prosecutions being waged by Department are in compliance the spending medical marijuana restriction in the DOJ budget. The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment was included in the final budget bill that President Obama signed in December. Despite this amendment, DOJ has continued to press forward with prosecuting state-legal medical marijuana conduct in several states, such as the Kettle Falls Five in Washington State and forfeiture actions against Berkeley Patients Group, Harborside, and others in California.
Today's letter clarifies the intent of the amendment and respectfully insists that the federal prosecutions must end against state-legal medical marijuana conduct. In a press release today, Rohrabacher said, “the continuing prosecution of these cases represents a clear defiance of the will of the people, as represented by the United States Congress. Good people, as a result, are victimized by their own government.” Farr added, “No reasonable person would agree with the Department’s interpretation of the amendment. The DOJ can try to parse its wording but Congress was perfectly clear: Stop wasting limited funds attacking medical marijuana patients.” However, DOJ spokesman Patrick Rodenbush has said the amendment doesn’t apply to cases against individuals or organizations, but merely stops the Department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
The amendment states that DOJ may not use funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. While DOJ appears to be taking an extraordinarily narrow view of "implementation," it is abundantly clear from the House floor debate that the amendment was intended to protect state-legal medical marijuana conduct from federal interference (see below):
"This doesn't affect one law, just lists the States that have already legalized it only for medical purposes, only medical purposes, and says, Federal Government, in those States, in those places, you can't bust people. It seems to me a practical, reasonable amendment in this time and age."
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV)
"...this commonsense amendment simply ensures that patients do not have to live in fear when following the laws of their States and the recommendations of their doctors. Physicians in those States will not be prosecuted for prescribing the substance, and local businesses will not be shut down for dispensing the same.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)
"In States with medical marijuana laws, patients face uncertainty regarding their treatment, and small business owners who have invested millions creating jobs and revenue have no assurances for the future. It is past time for the Justice Department to stop its unwarranted persecution of medical marijuana and put its resources where they are needed."
In fact, even the opponents of the amendment conceded that the amendment would prevent DOJ from continuing these prosecutions, in fact the opposition stance was that it went even further than that. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) said "the amendment would stop the DEA from going after more than medical marijuana," while Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) noted that the amendment "will take away the ability of the Department of Justice" to interfere with these state programs. Fleming later stated during the debate that "it would just make it difficult, if not impossible, for the DEA and the Department of Justice to enforce [federal] law" against state-legal medical marijuana conduct.
Given that both sides of the amendment agreed that it would prevent DOJ prosecutions of state-legal medical marijuana conduct, DOJ appears to be ignoring the legislative intent of the amendment. This is important because the term "implementation" is not defined in the U.S. Code or federal case law. Therefore, the plain meaning of the word should be applied, but implement has a couple of different meanings according to Websters, including the following:
1: carry out, accomplish; especially : to give practical effect to and ensure of actual fulfillment by concrete measures
When taking the floor debate and a review of the dictionary definitions of "implement," one has to side with the view of Reps. Rohrabacher and Farr rather than DOJ spokesperson Rodenbush. ASA has attempted to gain meetings with DOJ to no avail, and sent a memo to the Department stating our position on the amendment. Much of the content of that memo was condensed and included in the letter.
We applaud Reps. Rohrabacher and Farr for insisting the the Department adhere to the spending restrictions including the in the amendment. However, to truly resolve the state-federal conflict on medical marijuana laws, a more comprehensive solution is ultimately needed. Passage of the CARERS Act (H.R. 1538/S. 683) would end the federal crackdown on medical marijuana patients once and for all.
Picture caption: ASA's Steph Sherer speaking about the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment at a May 6, 2014 press conference with Reps. Sam Farr and Paul Broun, joined with then-KF5 defendant, Larry Harvey (seated).