Court rules federal government may not spend money to enforce drug laws against marijuana dispensaries legal under state law

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A federal court ruling in California removes the threat of federal enforcement from operating marijuana dispensaries that are legal under state law—at least for now.

In United States v. Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California, ruled that an appropriations rider enacted by Congress precludes federal law enforcement agencies from spending money to enforce federal drug laws against marijuana dispensaries that are operating in compliance with state law. An existing injunction against the MAMM remains in place, but will only be enforced against MAMM insofar as it is in violation of relevant state laws. [Note: Some reports, e.g. here, claim the injunction was lifted. This is not the case.]

The language in question, Section 538 of the 2015 Appropriations Act, provides:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of . . . California [and 32 other states], to prevent such states from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

According to the Justice Department, this provision did no more than prevent the federal government from spending funds to prosecute state officials or otherwise directly interfere with actions taken by state officials to implement state marijuana laws, and did not bar federal agencies from taking actions against marijuana dispensaries and others for violating federal drug laws. Such an interpretation was too limited, Judge Breyer concluded, "tortures the plain meaning of the statute," and is contrary to the express intent of the provision's sponsors. "It defies language and logic for the Government to argue that it does not 'prevent' California from 'implementing' its medical marijuana laws by shutting down these same heavily-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries," Breyer wrote.

Because the law in question is an appropriations rider, it only limits the expenditure of funds for the time period covered by the appropriations bill. As a result, this provision will only remain in force until December 11, 2015, unless it is extended or renewed in another appropriations bill.

A few final tidbits. Judge Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. This means that should this case ever reach the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer would have to recuse (as he did before in related litigation).

Also of note, among the authorities Judge Breyer cited in discussing how the appropriations rider should be interpreted was King v. Burwell. Go figure.