More Federal-State Tension over Medical Marijuana

A quick update on the feds going after state medical marijuana distributors. As I noted here, there has been a growing tension between the Department of Justice and States that allow medical marijuana possession / distribution. At first, the Department’s tune was essentially “we probably won’t prosecute anyone but just remember that we can.”

Well, as the BBC reports, U.S. Attorneys are preparing to prosecute select, “large dispensary” operations that are located in “towns and cities that have already banned marijuana shops.” The article suggests that other factors may be in play as well (e.g. proximity to schools). It is unclear from the article (and I don’t know personally) if collecting profits is also a problem that has drawn federal attention. The piece states that “[f]or-profit sales are in violation of California’s state law[,]” which leaves it unclear if some of the prosecution targets are alleged to have violated this provision.

So, is the federal government trying to help California? A better question: is the federal government allowed to?

Of course U.S. Attorneys can bring prosecutions under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) because that’s a federal statute. But they can’t enforce California’s state law on its behalf in a federal district court…nor would I imagine they’re interested in such a task. Moreover, I’m not sure that cities or towns in California are even able to ban such marijuana dispensaries under state law. Generally, state laws have supremacy over city ordinances and cities would be prevented from refusing to enforce a state law…or enforcing a law the state says they can’t. It’s worth pointing out that I don’t live in California nor know the specifics of the medical-marijuana laws there. Perhaps there’s an opt-out provision for cities? I just don’t know and if you do, I welcome your insight.

At any rate, it seems to me that the federal government is saying one thing and doing another. They suggest that their prosecutions are designed to close down problematic marijuana distributors violating California law. Give me a break…it’s California’s call to do that sort of thing. At best, the feds are rude neighbors sticking their noses where they don’t belong. In other words, if California has problems at home, let California deal with them. Surely California is better equipped to take care of its own affairs?

Of course, the feds being busy-bodies is the best possibility. The much more likely one is that the federal government is solely interested in what it stands to gain. Thus, federalism is all the more in sharp relief. This turned out to be far more than a “quick” update but c’est la vie. Anyhow, I’ll be watching how this develops with some interest and will report back when something noteworthy happens.

-Zachary Cloud

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