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Federal Court Says Medical Marijuana Rider Blocks DOJ Appeals

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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.

Government Shutdown Would Let Sessions Attack Medical Marijuana

(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.)

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week

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A key Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss hemp production, featuring witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the months since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s been strong interest in developing USDA and FDA regulations for the crop and its compounds such as CBD, and lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the agencies to speed up the rulemaking process to unlock the industry’s potential.

While the hearing notice doesn’t go into detail about what will be discussed, the meeting’s title—”Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”—and list of witnesses indicate that the conversation will revolve around the development of federal guidelines for hemp businesses.

USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy and EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn will appear before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on July 25.

Other invited witnesses include Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish, National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.

The Senate Agriculture Committee meeting will mark the chamber’s second cannabis-related hearing of the week. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs announced on Tuesday that it will meet to discuss marijuana banking issues on July 23.

FDA and USDA have both recently signaled that they were cognizant of widespread interest in creating regulatory pathways for hemp and its derivatives, with USDA stating that it planned to release an interim final rule on the products in August and FDA’s Abernethy writing that the agency is “expediting” its rulemaking process. FDA added that it hoped to release a report on its progress by early fall.

That said, heads of the departments have also tried to temper expectations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that USDA wouldn’t be expediting regulatory developments but that he expected them to be issued ahead of the 2020 planting seasons.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, meanwhile, cited policy complications that would make it difficult for the agency to create an alternative regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products to be lawfully marketed as food items or dietary supplements. He said that without congressional action, it may take FDA years to establish those rules.

Separately, officials from both FDA and USDA will participate in hemp conferences in August, where they’re also expected to update stakeholders on their progress.

Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.

More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.

NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.

State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.

That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.

It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.

For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.

The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.

Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.

Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”

“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.

DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”

At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.

Legalizing Marijuana Leads To Fewer Illegal Grow Sites In National Forests, Study Finds

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access

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In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.

The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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