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DOJ Pulls Prosecution of Medical Marijuana Users in Washington State

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As states have been relaxing their marijuana prohibitions and the feds have refused to budge on theirs, questions abound about whether and when federal law enforcement officials can investigate, charge, and prosecute marijuana users complying with state laws. A 2014 law, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, appeared to clarify that issue, prohibiting the Department of Justice from using federal funds to prevent States from implementing their own medical marijuana laws, including prosecuting legal medical marijuana users.

Last week, the DOJ admitted it was violating that protocol when it charged five Washington residents with federal drug distribution crimes for growing and consuming medical marijuana under state law. And while this may be good news for medical marijuana patients, it may not last that long. Here's why.

I Got Five on It

The defendants in the case, referred to as the Kettle Falls Five, were originally charged with distribution of marijuana and conspiracy to distribute under federal law after state officials raided their property, finding over 70 marijuana plants. Washington had legalized medical marijuana in 1998, and the Five maintained that the plants were for their own medical use and the grow complied with state law. Three of the five received prison sentences of at least a year with an additional three years probation.

They all appealed, and last Monday DOJ lawyers filed a brief with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals admitting the department "was not authorized to spend money on the prosecution of the defendants after December of 2014 because the defendants strictly complied with the Washington state medical marijuana laws." The Ninth Circuit had previously ruled in 2016 that the bill to which the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment "prohibits DOJ from spending funds from relevant appropriations acts for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws and who fully complied with such laws."

Legislative Sessions

While this would appear to settle the Feds v. State medical marijuana debate, except for one thing: the amendment must be renewed every year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it abundantly clear he disapproves of Rohrabacher-Farr, and while the Senate Appropriations Committee cleared the way for the amendment to be renewed in June, in September the U.S. House Rules Committee blocked a floor vote on renewal, leaving medical marijuana consumers on edge.

So for now, the feds have to stay out of state pot laws. But that might not always be the case.

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