U.S. Judge Tells Federal Anti-Pot Warriors to Shove it

U.S. Judge Tells Federal Anti-Pot Warriors to Shove it
File photo by Timothy Norris/L.A. Weekly

A U.S. District Court judge this week essentially told the federal government to call off its dogs when it comes to enforcement against medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

The U.S. Department of Justice appeared to defy the will of Congress, at least in the view of Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. Northern District of California.

Late last year President Obama signed an omnibus budget bill that included a directive, co-authored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, that essentially prohibits federal enforcement against otherwise legit medical pot sellers in states where it's legal.

The judge said the federal government's continued enforcement "defies language and logic" of the law.

While Breyer denied the defendant's attempt to get an injunction lifted, a matter that some news outlets got wrong, he essentially said feds couldn't enforce the injunction.

The case involved the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana dispensary in Fairfax, California. The feds essentially shut it down in 2011, and owner Lynette Shaw appealed.

Last year, Rohrabacher, angry that even U.S. veterans who had served their country and nearly died for it still couldn't get medical weed in a state where it's supposedly legal, spearheaded legislation that hamstrung the government's efforts to raid dispensaries in California. At least on paper.

"The harassment from the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] is something that should not be tolerated in the land of the free," Rohrabacher said.

The law is quoted in Breyer's ruling:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of ... California [and 32 other states], to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

"California," the judge wrote, "has chosen its way."

Yet the federal government continued to prosecute and persecute pot shop operators, arguing that the Rohrabacher rule only prevented federal agents from targeting states themselves. 

"California law is very clear that dispensaries were anticipated and are blessed," says Santa Monica attorney Mieke ter Poorten, who has specialized in representing collective operators. "This judge is telling the DEA to back off."

Does the case set a precedent? Not technically, Poorten says. At the same time, it's a clear message to the Justice Department and its DEA to lay off in states where medical marijuana has been legalized.

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"The federal raids are now going to have to cease based on this directive," she said. "They should cease."

There have been federal raids against Los Angeles collectives. The ruling won't affect local regulation. Los Angeles essentially allows fewer than 135 dispensaries to enjoy limited immunity from local law enforcement. The state estimates, however, that more than 900 exist in the city.

Breyer said in his ruling that the feds need to back off "as long as Congress precludes the Department of Justice from expending funds in the manner proscribed by" the Rohrabacher amendment. 

Unfortunately for pot shops, the law expires in December. Rohrabacher has vowed to continue to try to protect legit medical marijuana providers from government crackdowns. 

Shaw has started a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to raise enough money to reopen her Marin County shop.

"We won our case against the feds," she said in a statement this week, "and have stopped the war against medical marijuana dispensaries."

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