The omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last December included a rider aimed at preventing the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. The rider, which was introduced by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.), tells the DOJ it may not spend money to "prevent" states from "implementing" laws alllowing medical use of cannabis. During the debate that preceded the House vote on the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment, both supporters and opponents agreed that it would block federal prosecution of patients and providers who comply with state law. The DOJ claims otherwise, and yesterday Rohrabacher and Farr tried once again to set the record straight, asking the department's inspector general to investigate the failure to comply with the rider.
Last April a DOJ spokesman, Patrick Rodenbush, told the Los Angeles Times the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment has no bearing on forfeiture actions against dispensaries such as Oakland's Harborside Health Center or the prosecution of people who grow marijuana for their own medical use, such as the Kettle Falls Five in Washington. Rodenbush said the amendment merely stops the Justice Department from "impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws." In a July 30 letter to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Rohrabacher and Farr say "Mr. Rodenbush's interpretation is clearly a stretch," since "the implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do." They add that the debate over their rider clearly shows the legislators who voted for it (and against it) understood it as protecting people who follow state law from federal harassment.
"Cases such as the Kettle Falls Five case in Washington, asset forfeiture actions against dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay area, or the Lynch case now pending in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, are all instances of DOJ expending dollars it does not have the legal authority to spend," Rohrabacher and Farr write. "Consequently, we believe there is sufficient cause for your office to investigate potential violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act by the Department with regard to its prosecution and other enforcement actions against persons and businesses conducting legitimate medical marijuana activities under state law."
The Anti-Deficiency Act makes it a crime to use federal money for purposes that are not approved by Congress. Lynch involves Charlie Lynch, the owner of a Morro Bay, California, dispensary who was convicted of five federal felonies in 2008 and received a one-year prison sentence in 2009, based on a sympathetic judge's debatable interpretation of the criteria for the "safety valve" that lets certain drug offenders escape mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors want the appeals court to overturn that sentence in favor of a five-year term. Lynch remains free on bail as he appeals his conviction, and the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment gave him a new argument.
Meanwhile, Harborside's chief antagonist, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, announced on Wednesday that she will be stepping down as of September 1. Steve DeAngelo, Harborside's executive director, welcomed the news in a statement issued yesterday:
In 2012…Melinda Haag initiated a civil forfeiture action to shutter the doors of Harborside Health Center and others around the state. At the time I vowed that Harborside would never abandon our patients, and we have been battling Ms. Haag in federal court ever since. I always believed Harborside would outlast Ms. Haag, so hearing that she is stepping down gives us great relief and great satisfaction.
In Ms. Haag's parting statement she said she felt her office had "accomplished most of our goals" during her tenure. The one goal she most assuredly has not accomplished is closing down Harborside Health Center. We hope her successor will have a more finely tuned understanding of compassion and justice than Ms. Haag has displayed, and allow Harborside to focus on serving our patients instead of battling a court case that should never have been started."