Two members from the House of Representatives are asking for an investigation regarding the Department of Justice’s focus on medicinal cannabis providers and patients. Sam Farr, a California Democrat, andDana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, believe the DOJ is in violation of federal law.
The two politicians created an amendment that prevents the DOJ from using its funding to target state-legal medical cannabis programs. The provision gained congressional support and became part of the federal spending bill, which President Obama signed last December. Though the annual funding bill is set to expire, lawmakers reintroduced an identical cannabis provision in June, and the House promptly passed the measure.
Despite this chain of events, the letter from representatives Farr and Rohrabacher reads:
“The Department has continued to pursue and prosecute individuals and businesses for involvement with medical marijuana in states where it is legal.”
Patrick Rodenbush, a Justice Department spokesperson, told the LA Times that the cannabis amendment prohibited the entity from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws,” and did not “impact our ability to prosecute private individuals or private entities who are violating the Controlled Substances Act.”
In response, the letter reads,
“Mr. Rodenbush’s interpretation is clearly a stretch. The implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do. For DOJ to argue otherwise is a tortuous twisting of the text … and common sense.”
The congressmen believe that any DOJ official who claims the amendment states otherwise is disregarding the facts. Furthermore, using federal funding to prevent legally compliant patients and businesses from engaging in medicinal cannabis programs is a flagrant violation of the marijuana provision. While a Justice Department spokesperson acknowledges receiving the letter, the entity will not respond until the document is reviewed.
Earlier in 2015, Rohrabacher and Farr publicly condemned the DOJ’s attempt to shut down Harborside Health Center, a California company that is one of the largest and most respected medicinal cannabis businesses in the United States. Last year in Washington state, the Justice Department targeted a family of medicinal users who claim their 70 plants were solely meant for personal use in their rural Kettle Falls home. Both congressmen believe that the DOJ is overstepping its authoritative limitations and diverting federal funds into unauthorized areas.
Though the DOJ has reeled in its crackdown, it still targets state-legal patients and businesses. The federal government is partially to blame as it continues to equate cannabis with harmful substances such as heroin and crack cocaine. According to a CBS News poll, 86% of Americans support medicinal cannabis. Reflecting the current public opinion, 23 states allow medical use of the plant and its products, while 17 more states have legalized non-psychoactive marijuana extracts. Additionally, four states along with the District of Columbia have lifted their prohibition on recreational cannabis use. With Farr and Rohrabacher’s letter, the hope is to align policy with the public’s current perspective.
Last week, two lawmakers in Washington, D.C. expressed their frustration over the fact that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has continued to prosecute patients in states where medical cannabis is legal — in open defiance of a congressional amendment passed last December that protects patients and dispensaries. California Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (a Republican) and Sam Farr (a Democrat), co-sponsors of the amendment that prohibits federal interference in states where medical cannabis is legal, sent a letter to the DOJ demanding that prosecutions of patients and providers cease.
Wrote the representatives in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder:
“We respectfully insist that you bring your Department back into compliance with federal law by ceasing marijuana prosecutions and forfeiture actions against those acting in accordance with state medical marijuana laws.”
The Justice Department, however, in a very narrow interpretation of the law, has issued statements reflecting its belief that the amendment does not apply to cases against individuals or organizations (such as dispensaries that are currently being prosecuted in California). Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesperson for the DOJ, said the law only stops the department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
Congressmen Rohrabacher and Farr, in their letter to Holder, said that the DOJ’s interpretation of the amendment was “emphatically wrong.” They went on to state that the purpose of the amendment was to prevent the DOJ from wasting law enforcement resources on prosecutions of “medical marijuana patients and providers, including businesses that operate legally under state law.”
These “enforcement resources” are outlined in a 2013 report by Americans for Safe Access. The report illustrated that the Obama administration has spent more than $80 million per year — equal to about $200,000 per day — to prosecute medical marijuana users, cultivators, and dispensaries. The crackdown has been justified by the fact that cannabis is, alongside heroin and meth, a Schedule I drug, giving it an official status of “no currently accepted medical use.”
Separate legislation has been introduced to Congress that would reclassify cannabis to Schedule II, preventing the crackdown by the DOJ and DEA in states with legal medical marijuana. It would also allow much needed research into the plant’s medical efficacy. While passage of this rescheduling is uncertain, it would go beyond the existing federal amendment and offer broader, less ambiguous protections for individuals and retail outlets.
The only thing that seems certain currently is the DOJ’s defiance of the existing amendment and its continued prosecution of patients and dispensaries in places like the San Francisco Bay area and the state of Washington. However, given the strict interpretation of the amendment and defiant stance of the DOJ, patients and providers in all 23 states where medical cannabis is legal are subject to fear, federal scrutiny, and prosecution.
According to the US Justice Department, a restriction on the enforcement of medical marijuana put into place by Congress is not applicable to individual cases.
A spending bill amended by Congress this past December was considered a big win until this clarification of the amendment from the Justice Department. The effect of this particular bill was to render the Justice Department unable to interfere with the implementation of laws in states that permit the sale of medical marijuana – not prohibit prosecution of specific cases relevant to medical marijuana.
This is most evident with active proceedings against three dispensaries that are located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush stated on Wednesday that the amendment was not meant to have any effect on cases that pertain to organizations or individuals.
Instead, it was supposed to prevent the Justice Department from interfering with states’ legal proceedings and “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
The Justice Department within the San Francisco Bay area is particularly interested in the narrow interpretation of the law. In this jurisdiction, the Justice Department has gone through forfeiture proceedings that were directed against three different medical marijuana dispensaries, all of whom were assessed to be violating federal law with their actions.
Henry Wykowski, an attorney who is defending the dispensaries, stated as follows: “I think that the amendment is vague and it hasn’t been interpreted by any court yet. But the language can be read more broadly to encompass such prosecutions.”
The fact that the amendment is so new makes it subject to nearly infinite interpretations – creating a dangerous ‘make it up as we go’ legal approach.