First came the Ogden memo in 2009, which announced to federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice (DOJ) not to focus its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with state medical marijuana laws. Then in 2014, Congress passed the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibited the DOJ from using federal funds to prevent states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws.
The amendment was the basis behind a federal judge’s ruling last October that the DOJ could not enforce injunctions against a California dispensary that was in compliance with the state’s medical marijuana laws. During the case, the DOJ argued that prosecuting and shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries does not prevent states from implementing their laws. Judge Breyer did not respond well to this argument, instead saying that the DOJ’s interpretation “tortures” the meaning of the law and “defies language and logic.”
The DOJ appealed the district court’s ruling to California’s Ninth Circuit court, but in a surprising turn of events, the DOJ dropped its appeal earlier this week by filing a motion to dismiss its own case. If the DOJ had proceeded with the appeal and lost again in the Ninth Circuit, the ruling would have set an even greater precedent for California courts. This is a big win for those of us who believe that marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state and local laws should be treated the same as any other legally compliant business. As long as Congress continues to renew the amendment each year, marijuana business owners in legal states can sleep more soundly knowing they will not be woken up by DOJ boots kicking down their doors, and that even if this does happen, they could have the courts on their side.
Still, both the Ogden memo and the district court’s ruling highlight an important element of the federal government’s current position on marijuana enforcement. The feds will not interfere if, and only if, states have clear and robust marijuana regulations in place. For states like California, which only recently passed statewide regulation and is still in the midst of its rule-making process, there is an urgent need to get that robust regulation in place so cannabis businesses can enjoy the fruits of these policies against federal interference.