Funding Limits On Federal Prosecutions Of State-Legal Medical Cannabis
On February 4, 2022, the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) issued a report on how different federal courts across the country are interpreting a spending bill rider that has generally shielded state medical cannabis programs from interference by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”).
The Growing Trend In Legalizing Cannabis.
Medical marijuana is legal in 37 states.
The medical use of cannabis is legal (with a doctor’s recommendation) in 37 states and Washington DC. Those 37 states being Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. The medical use of cannabis is also legal in the territories of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 18 states.
Eighteen states and Washington DC, have legalized marijuana for recreational use — no doctor’s letter required — for adults over the age of 21. Those 18 states being Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington and the territories of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 6 tribal nations.
Six Tribal nations have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Those 6 tribes being the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (South Dakota), Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe (South Dakota), Suquamish Tribe
(Washington state), Squaxin Island Tribe (Washington state), Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
(North Carolina) and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (New York).
The Anti-Federal U.S. Climate
The Federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) 21 U.S.C. § 812 classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance with a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment, and lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
Joyce-Blumenauer Amendment (previously referred to as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment)
In 2014 the House passed an amendment to the yearly federal appropriations bill that effectively shields medical marijuana businesses from federal prosecution. Proposed by Representatives Rohrabacher and Farr, the amendment forbids federal agencies to spend money on investigating and prosecuting medical marijuana-related activities in states where such activities are legal.
The amendment states that:
NONE OF THE FUNDS MADE AVAILABLE UNDER THIS ACT TO THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE MAY BE USED, WITH RESPECT TO ANY OF THE STATES OF ALABAMA, ALASKA, ARIZONA, ARKANSAS, CALIFORNIA, COLORADO, CONNECTICUT, DELAWARE, FLORIDA, GEORGIA, HAWAII, ILLINOIS, INDIANA, IOWA, KENTUCKY, LOUISIANA, MAINE, MARYLAND, MASSACHUSETTS, MICHIGAN, MINNESOTA, MISSISSIPPI, MISSOURI, MONTANA, NEVADA, NEW HAMPSHIRE, NEW JERSEY, NEW MEXICO, NEW YORK, NORTH CAROLINA, NORTH DAKOTA, OHIO, OKLAHOMA, OREGON, PENNSYLVANIA, RHODE ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA, TENNESSEE, TEXAS, UTAH, VERMONT, VIRGINIA, WASHINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA, WISCONSIN, AND WYOMING, OR WITH RESPECT TO THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, GUAM, OR PUERTO RICO, TO PREVENT ANY OF THEM FROM IMPLEMENTING THEIR OWN LAWS THAT AUTHORIZE THE USE, DISTRIBUTION, POSSESSION, OR CULTIVATION OF MEDICAL MARIJUANA.
This appropriations rider by the House is subject to renewal each year by Congress and while this has been renewed each year it has not extended to recreational cannabis. Furthermore, Congress yet has changed any of the tax or banking laws that pose challenges to the cannabis industry.
Divergence Of Opinion Among The Federal Courts
On its face, the appropriations rider bars DOJ from taking legal action against the states directly in order to prevent them from promulgating or enforcing medical marijuana laws. In addition, federal courts have interpreted the rider to prohibit certain federal prosecutions of private individuals or organizations that produce, distribute, or possess marijuana in accordance with state medical marijuana laws. In those cases, criminal defendants have invoked the rider before trial, seeking the dismissal of their indictments or injunctions barring prosecution. By contrast, courts have generally declined to apply the rider outside the context of initial criminal prosecutions. The two Federal circuits that have taken up this issue are the 1st and 9th circuits.
In United States v. McIntosh (9th Cir, 2016), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered the circumstances in which the appropriations rider bars CSA prosecution of marijuana-related activities. The court held that the rider prohibits the federal government only from preventing the implementation of those specific rules of state law that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. DOJ does not prevent the implementation of [such rules] when it prosecutes individuals who engage in conduct unauthorized under state medical marijuana laws. Individuals who do not strictly comply with all state-law conditions regarding the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana have engaged in conduct that is unauthorized, and prosecuting such individuals does not violate [the rider]. Relying on McIntosh, the Ninth Circuit has issued several decisions allowing federal prosecution of individuals who did not “strictly comply” with state medical marijuana laws, notwithstanding the appropriations rider, and several district courts have followed that reasoning.
In United States v. Bilodeau (1st Cir., 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also considered the scope of the appropriations rider. The defendants in Bilodeau were registered with the State of Maine to produce medical marijuana, but DOJ alleged that they distributed large quantities of marijuana to individuals who were not qualifying patients under Maine law, including recipients in other states. Following indictment for criminal CSA violations, the defendants sought to invoke the appropriations rider to bar their prosecutions. They argued that the rider “must be read to preclude the DOJ, under most circumstances, from prosecuting persons who possess state licenses to partake in medical marijuana activity.” DOJ instead urged the court to apply the Ninth Circuit’s standard, allowing prosecution unless the defendants could show that they acted in strict compliance with state medical marijuana laws. The First Circuit declined to adopt either of the proposed tests. As an initial matter, the court agreed with the Ninth Circuit that the rider means “DOJ may not spend funds to bring prosecutions if doing so prevents a state from giving practical effect to its medical marijuana laws.” However, the panel declined to adopt the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the rider bars prosecution only in cases where defendants strictly complied with state law. The court noted that the text of the rider does not explicitly require strict compliance with state law and that, given the complexity of state marijuana regulations, “the potential for technical noncompliance [with state law] is real enough that no person through any reasonable effort could always assure strict compliance.” Thus, the First Circuit concluded that requiring strict compliance with state law would likely chill state-legal medical marijuana activities and prevent the states from giving effect to their medical marijuana laws. On the other hand, the court also rejected the defendants’ more expansive reading of the rider, reasoning that “Congress surely did not intend for the rider to provide a safe harbor to all caregivers with facially valid documents without regard for blatantly illegitimate activity.” Ultimately, while the First Circuit held that the rider bars CSA prosecution in at least some cases where the defendant has committed minor technical violations of state medical marijuana laws, it declined to “fully define [the] precise boundaries” of its alternative standard. On the record before it, the court concluded that “the defendants’ cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana aimed at supplying persons whom no defendant ever thought were qualifying patients under Maine law” and that a CSA conviction in those circumstances would not “prevent Maine’s medical marijuana laws from having their intended practical effect.”
What Should You Do?
Clearly, to avail yourself of the protections of the amendment, you must be on the medical cannabis side and you must be in strict compliance with your State’s medical cannabis laws and regulations. You may not be covered under the amendment if you are involved in the recreational cannabis side even if legal in the State you are operating.
Given the illegal status of cannabis under Federal law you need to protect yourself and your marijuana business from all challenges created by the U.S. government. Although cannabis is legal in California, that is not enough to protect you. Be proactive and engage an experienced Cannabis Tax Attorney in your area. Let the tax attorneys of the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County, Inland Empire (Ontario and Palm Springs) and other California locations protect you and maximize your net profits. And if you are involved in crypto currency, check out what a bitcoin tax attorney can do for you.