California marijuana advocates file suit against federal government

California marijuana advocates file suit against federal government

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[JURIST] Medical marijuana advocates Thursday filed suit [press release] in a California federal court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the federal government for its recent crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in the state. Americans for Safe Access (ASA) [advocacy website] petitioned [complaint, PDF] the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] to intervene in what the Oakland-based advocacy group claims is a coercive attempt by the federal government to hijack California’s state lawmaking authority. The actions in question are part of a coordinated effort announced earlier this month [press release] by California’s four US Attorneys, including indictments, civil forfeiture lawsuits against owners of property on which medical marijuana dispensaries operate and dozens of warning letters to other operators and landlords of marijuana stores and to local officials who might implement the state’s decriminalization law. ASA’s complaint acknowledges the federal government’s right to enforce in the states “in an even-handed manner” federal criminal laws against marijuana, but cites the Tenth Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] as protecting California’s sovereign right to decriminalize marijuana for medical use:

ASA does not challenge the congressional authority to enact laws criminalizing possession and/or control of marijuana … Nor does ASA challenge the federal government’s general authority to enforce its drug laws in the State of California. It is, rather, the government’s tactics, and the unlawful assault on state sovereignty they represent, that form the gravamen of ASA’s claim. Under the Tenth Amendment, the government may not commandeer the law-making functions of the State of its subdivisions directly or indirectly through the selective enforcement of its drug laws.

Essentially the suit accuses federal agencies of commandeering California’s legislative function and interfering with local laws meant to distinguish between medical and non-medical use. ASA’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of its 20,000 California members who are “directly and adversely affected” by the federal government’s actions.

US courts have been forced to interpret medical marijuana statutes in recent years. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) [official website] announced in June that the state is filing a federal lawsuit [JURIST report] seeking a declaratory judgment over the legality of the state’s controversial medical marijuana law passed last November. In January 2010, the California Supreme Court [official website] overturned [JURIST report] a 2003 law limiting the amount of marijuana that may be possessed under the state’s Medical Marijuana Program (MMP) [materials]. Earlier that month, New Jersey became the fourteenth US state [JURIST report] to legalize medical marijuana. In November 2009, voters in Maine approved [JURIST report] an expansion of the state’s existing medical marijuana laws, making Maine the fifth state to allow dispensaries, following California, Colorado, Rhode Island and New Mexico. California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in 2008 that the MMP is not in conflict with the Supremacy Clause [JURIST report] and does not violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) [text].