A federal appeals court issued an opinion on Monday determining that a congressionally-approved provision can be invoked to block the Department of Justice from spending money to defend against appeals from people convicted of medical marijuana activity that was in compliance with state laws.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which previously ruled in 2016 that the budget rider (known commonly as “Rohrabacher-Farr” or § 542) protects people who are complying with state medical cannabis laws from being prosecuted for their activities, went even further in the current opinion.
The case at issue concerns Noah Kleinman, who was sentenced to federal prison for various federal marijuana-related crimes on December 8, 2014, just weeks before Congress approved the medical cannabis protections.
“Preliminarily, we clarify that the government’s approach to this case is mistaken,” the court wrote in the Monday opinion. “[Kleinman] argues that § 542 prohibits continued DOJ expenditures on his case since its enactment, which in this case refers to the DOJ’s ongoing litigation on appeal. We determined in [the 2016 ruling] that § 542 can prohibit continued DOJ expenditures even though a prosecution was properly initiated prior to § 542’s enactment…and the same reasoning applies to continued expenditures on a direct appeal after conviction.”
Unfortunately for Kleinman, however, the court ruled that he personally cannot take advantage of the medical marijuana protections because not all of his cannabis actions were in strict compliance with California’s medical use program. Specifically, he was convicted of sending product out of the state, which is a violation of California law.
In the earlier 2016 Ninth Circuit case, known as McIntosh, the court ruled against Department of Justice arguments that the spending provision only stops the government from blocking the implementation of state medical marijuana laws and doesn’t shield patients or providers who are operating in accordance with those laws.
But the court made clear that because the spending rider only concerns individual annual appropriations bills, its protections for states and for persons are temporary.
“We note the temporal nature of the problem with these prosecutions,” the court wrote at the time. “The government had authority to initiate criminal proceedings, and it merely lost funds to continue them. DOJ is currently prohibited from spending funds from specific appropriations acts for prosecutions of those who complied with state law. But Congress could appropriate funds for such prosecutions tomorrow.”
Now, in the opinion in Kleinman’s case, the court elaborates on its reasoning and adds the caveat that DOJ could be blocked from spending money to defend against appeals:
“§ 542 does not require a court to vacate convictions that were obtained before the rider took effect. In other words, when a defendant’s conviction was entered before § 542 became law, a determination that the charged conduct was wholly compliant with state law would not vacate that conviction. It would only mean that the DOJ’s continued expenditure of funds pertaining to that particular state-law-compliant conviction after § 542 took effect was unlawful. That is because, as we explained in McIntosh, § 542 did not change any substantive law; it merely placed a temporary hold on the expenditure of money for a certain purpose… When § 542 took effect, the DOJ was obligated to stop spending funds in connection with any charges involving conduct that fully complied with state law, but that temporary spending freeze does not spoil the fruits of prosecutorial expenditures made before § 542 took effect. Instead, as it pertains to this case, because § 542 became law after Kleinman’s conviction and sentence, but before this appeal, § 542 (if it applies at all) might operate to bar the DOJ from continuing to defend this prosecution on appeal insofar as it relates to those counts that may be determined to involve only conduct that wholly complies with California medical marijuana law.”
However, the court sidestepped the question of whether the medical marijuana protections prevent federal prisons, which fall under the Department of Justice, from spending money to incarcerate people convicted of state-legal medical cannabis activity.
In a footnote in the new opinion, Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., on behalf of a three-judge panel of the court, said:
“Kleinman separately argues that § 542 compels the Bureau of Prisons, as a subdivision of the DOJ, to stop spending money to incarcerate persons for medical marijuana convictions based on activity that fully complies with state law. We need not resolve this issue in this case. As we have explained, at least two of Kleinman’s convictions fall outside the scope of § 542 because they involved conduct that violates California law. Those two convictions (Counts 1 and 6) carried the longest terms of imprisonment (211 months) and all terms for each count were sentenced to run concurrently. Thus, even if the DOJ could not separately continue to expend funds to incarcerate Kleinman on the remaining counts because of § 542, Kleinman’s custodial status would not be changed because § 542 does not bar his continued incarceration for his conspiracy convictions. Further, Kleinman makes no argument that the Bureau of Prisons would calculate his credit for early release any differently without those concurrent sentences. Thus, we do not decide in this case the impact of § 542 on the Bureau of Prisons’ expenditure of funds to incarcerate persons who were convicted only of federal drug offenses involving conduct that was fully compliant with state medical marijuana laws.”
The state medical cannabis protections temporarily expired over the weekend as part of a federal government shutdown, but have now been extended through February 8 as part of a short-term appropriations deal. It is unclear if they will be included in a longer-term Fiscal Year 2018 spending package that congressional leaders are currently negotiating.
(The new Ninth Circuit opinion is actually an amended version of a ruling the court issued last June, and adds additional analysis about other aspects of Kleinman’s case which don’t directly concern the congressional rider. While the original opinion received some press coverage, most of it focused on jury nullification aspects of the case and the broader interpretation of the medical cannabis protections to cover the appeals process was mostly overlooked at the time.)
Idaho Medical Marijuana Activists ‘Likely’ To Seek Signature Gathering Relief After Court Ruling
A campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho is preparing to potentially collect signatures again, as they are likely to seek the same relief that a federal court recently granted a separate campaign that found its petitioning efforts crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The judge said activists behind Reclaim Idaho, which is pushing an initiative on school funding, can start collecting signatures in-person and electronically for 48 days starting July 9. While the Idaho Cannabis Coalition wasn’t involved in that case, they feel the ruling will apply to them and they’re actively monitoring the situation.
“We are in the process of working with the local medical marijuana campaign to assess whether Judge Winmill’s order provides a route for the medical marijuana initiative to still qualify for the November ballot,” Tamar Todd, legal director for the New Approach PAC, which is lending support to the state cannabis effort, told Marijuana Moment.
“The medical marijuana campaign is similarly situated to the Reclaim Idaho campaign and will likely ask for a similar extension of time and permission to collect signatures electronically from the Secretary of State, and if necessary, from the District Court,” she said. “I don’t know the exact timeline as there are a number of moving pieces but it will be quick.”
On June 23, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill gave the state two options: either allow electronic signature gathering for 48 days or simply place the Reclaim Idaho initiative on the ballot regardless of the signature requirement. The state chose neither and proceeded to request that the ruling be stayed.
The judge denied the state’s request to stay the order, so the signature gathering for the school funding campaign can proceed on July 9. The state has since filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to challenge the lower court’s ruling.
“The district court order severely and unquestionably disrupts Idaho’s election,” the state deputy attorney general wrote in the motion.
The deadline to submit 55,057 signatures to qualify the cannabis initiative passed on May 1, shortly after the group announced it was suspending petitioning activities because of the health crisis and the stay-at-home social distancing measures the state enacted. The cannabis campaign said it has about 45,000 raw signatures on hand at this point, and they’re confident that can fill the gap if they get the deadline extension and electronic petitioning option.
Under the proposed measure, patients with qualifying conditions could receive medical cannabis recommendations from physicians and then possess up to four ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
While advocates say passing medical marijuana in one of the remaining states without such policies on the books would be a victory for patients in its own right, it could also have outsized federal implications. A House-passed bill to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators is currently sitting in limbo in a Senate committee chaired by a senator who represents the state.
Creating a medical marijuana program in Idaho, which is one of small handful of states that don’t yet even have limited CBD laws, could put additional pressure on Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to move the financial services legislation in Congress.
Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators
Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.
As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.
But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.
State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”
The OMMA has received multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries. Learn more here: https://t.co/3b6XFzYe2f pic.twitter.com/MPq4Z3PWft
— Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (@OMMAOK) July 2, 2020
Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”
It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.
Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel
Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect
Only a day after a new marijuana decriminalization law took effect in Virginia, top state lawmakers are announcing that they’re already looking ahead to full legalization.
A group of Democratic legislators on Thursday announced plans to introduce a bill to legalize and regulate a commercial cannabis market in the state. While the measure isn’t set to be filed until next year, lawmakers framed legalization as necessary in the fight for social and racial justice.
“Decriminalizing marijuana is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but there is still much work to do,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said in a press release. “While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased.”
Other lawmakers backing the broader legalization push include Sens. Adam Ebbin (D) and Jennifer McClellan (D), as well as Del. Steve Heretick (D).
On Wednesday, the state’s new marijuana decriminalization policy took effect. The law, approved by lawmakers earlier this year and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), removes criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession. Under the change, having up to an ounce of cannabis is now punishable by a $25 fine and no threat of jail time or a criminal record.
Prior Virginia law punished simple marijuana possession with up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and a long-term criminal record.
“This bill will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization with a framework that addresses both public safety and racial equity in an emerging market,” Herring said of the new law, which she sponsored in the House of Delegates and Ebbin led in the Senate.
The decriminalization measure also contains a provision to study future legalization. It requires a bevy of executive agencies, including “the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security,” to convene an expert working group to study the matter. That panel’s report is due in November.
A separate legislative agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), is also studying the impacts of possible legalization as the result of yet another resolution approved by lawmakers this year.
Lawmakers said on Thursday that the JLARC report, which is due in December, would inform how they shape legalization legislation they expect to file in 2021.
“Elements of the JLARC study include review of best practices from states such as Illinois that have developed a legal framework, testing and labelling recommendations, and measures to reduce illicit sales,” according to a press release from Ebbin’s office. “The study will also examine how best to provide redress and economic opportunity for communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, and recommend programs and policies to reinvest in affected communities.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus doesn’t want to wait for the results of the two reviews, however, and is pushing fellow lawmakers to take up cannabis legalization during a special session in August. In addition, the caucus has said its members intend to file bills to implement automatic expungement, ban no-knock warrants, require courts to publish racial date on people charged with low-level offenses and enact other sweeping criminal justice reforms.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for the legalization advocacy group NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, said the organization, which has worked with lawmakers on past reforms, looks forward to continuing to bring evidence-based cannabis policy to Virginia.
“For far too long, young people, poor people, and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and Virginia must take immediate steps to right these past wrongs and undo the damage that prohibition has waged upon hundreds of thousands of Virginians,” Pedini said. “It is time to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults in the Commonwealth.”
Ebbin said that despite the meaningful step of decriminalization, the state still has a long way to go.
“Today Virginia is taking an important first step in reducing the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis,” he said in a statement. “The prohibition of marijuana has failed and the consequence of this failure has been felt overwhelmingly by Virginians of color, but it has not ended. It will only end when it is replaced by a regulated adult-use market that emphasizes equity—making whole those who have been burdened most by making sure they have a seat at the table and access to the marketplace. We are looking forward to doing the hard work needed to get this right.”
In the meantime, the Senate Democratic Caucus has announced it will pursue a bill during the special session next month to end law enforcement searches of people or vehicles based solely on the smell of marijuana, which critics say is a recipe for discriminatory enforcement. The group also noted that the chamber approved legislation during the regular legislative session that would have expunged certain marijuana charges and convictions, but that those bills didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.