Federal court rules that DEA must stop interfering with compliant medical marijuana businesses

by Dentons

On October 19, 2015, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California rejected an argument by the US Government seeking a narrow interpretation of congressional legislation designed to limit federal law enforcement efforts in the face of state laws legalizing marijuana.

The issue before the court was Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana’s (MAMM) request for the court to dissolve a permanent injunction entered against it in 2002 ordering it to cease distribution of cannabis on the grounds of there being “a strong likelihood” that MAMM’s conduct violated the Controlled Substances Act and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. Despite the injunction, MAMM has operated a medical marijuana dispensary in compliance with California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which exempted from state criminal prosecution physicians, patients and primary caregivers who possess or cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes with a physician’s recommendation. The court denied the motion to dissolve the injunction, but held that the enforcement of the injunction must be consistent with the new directive of Congress in Section 538 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, Pub. L. 113-235, 128 Stat. 2130 (2014) (2015 Appropriations Act).

Section 538, also known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (Amendment), prohibits the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) from expending any funds in connection with the enforcement of any law that interferes with a state’s ability to implement its own law(s) authorizing the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana. See 2015 Appropriations Act § 538. When the legislation passed, both supporters and opponents of the Amendment agreed that the bill prohibits the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from spending funds to arrest medical marijuana patients and providers that comply with applicable state law.

The Government contended that the Amendment only prevents actions against states and not against the individuals or businesses engaged in marijuana-related activities. The court rejected this argument, finding that the Government’s assertion “that enjoining any one medical marijuana dispensary—here, MAAM—does not impede California’s implementation of its medical marijuana law” is an inherent contradiction. The court interpreted the Government’s argument “to mean that, in the grand scheme of things, shutting down any given dispensary may be presumed to have such a minimal effect on California’s medical marijuana regime that it does not ‘prevent’ California from ‘implementing’ its State law.” The court found this argument to be “at odds with fundamental notions of the rule of law” for 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.”

While the court held that a plain reading of the amendment forbade the DOJ from enforcing the injunction to the extent that MAMM operated in compliance with California law, the court also considered the legislative history of the Amendment in its order. In rejecting the Government’s argument that the legislative history was irrelevant, the court referenced an April 8, 2015, letter written by co-authors of the Amendment, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr, addressed to then Attorney General Eric Holder. The letter responded to earlier “statements [made by the DOJ] indicating that the [DOJ] does not believe such a spending restriction designed to protect [the medical marijuana laws of 35 states] applies to specific ongoing cases against individuals and businesses engaged in medical marijuana activity.” The court cited the following passage from the letter in finding that the legislative history was relevant and did not support the Government’s position:

“as the authors of the provision in question, we write to inform you that this interpretation of our amendment 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 provides, including businesses that operate legally under state law. In fact, a close look at the Congressional Record of the floor debate of the amendment clearly illustrates the intent of those who sponsored and supported this measure. Even those who argued against the amendment agreed with the proponents’ interpretation of their argument.”

Ultimately, the court concluded that as long as Congress precludes the DOJ from expending funds in the manner proscribed by Section 538, the court must enforce the terms of the Amendment.

While the decision is significant, it of course does not bind other courts who increasingly will be called upon to determine the interplay between state and federal laws regarding marijuana. In fact, in Colorado, an attorney who has been charged with money laundering and trying to deposit proceeds from an illegal enterprise into a bank in connection with certain state-licensed marijuana facilities, has moved to dismiss the claims based on the amendment. We will continue to follow developments related to the Amendment.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Dentons | Attorney Advertising

Written by:


Dentons on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.