When Congress passed legislation in December barring the federal government from spending money on busting medical marijuana operations sanctioned by a state, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) conveniently interpreted it to mean they could continue to do just that.
Dispensary operators, the states (especially California) and honked off congressional sponsors of the legislation complained bitterly about being ignored by the DOJ.
On Tuesday, the federal courts weighed in for the first time. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, for the Northern District of California, using rather unambiguous language, told the feds to back off. Breyer removed the permanent injunction he had placed on the state’s first licensed medical marijuana dispensary, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), in 2011.
The new law said the department could not expend money interfering with state-approved medical marijuana operations, and closing pot shops was clearly that, the judge said. DOJ lawyers argued that shutting down individual shops doesn’t stop the state from executing its law and running a regulated medical pot market.
Breyer was incredulous. “The Government’s contrary reading so tortures the plain meaning of the statute that it must be quoted to ensure credible articulation,” he wrote. He then quoted a chunk of DOJ reasoning and remarked, “Where to start?”
For one, “This drop-in-the-bucket argument is at odds with fundamental notions of the rule of law. It has never been a legal principle than an otherwise impermissible government intrusion can be countenanced because any one defendant is a small piece of the legal landscape.”
The judge refuted the government’s argument that busting individual shops had little effect on the market. He said that defies “language and logic.”
“Contrary to the Government’s representation, the record here does support a finding that Californians’ access to legal medical marijuana has been substantively impeded by the closing of dispensaries, and the closing of MAMM in particular.”
The feds have long argued that they needed to use a heavy hand in California because the system it chose to implement eschews a centralized state dispensary for regulated private dispensaries that border on criminal enterprises. Breyer found California’s “intricate legal framework” a proper implementation of state authority.
Breyer noted a reliable source to support his interpretation of the law—the authors. He quoted a statement they made to the court about the DOJ position:
“As the authors of the provision in question, we write to inform you that this interpretation is emphatically wrong. Rest assured, the purpose of our amendment was to prevent the Department from wasting its limited law enforcement resources on prosecutions and asset forfeiture actions against medical marijuana patients and providers, including businesses that operate legally under the law.”