Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Rand Paul amendment to block certain federal prosecutions in medical marijuana states would raise interesting legal questions

Senator Rand Paul has filed an amendment to a jobs bill that would protect patients and physicians from federal prosecutions in states with medical marijuana laws.  Unlike the spending amendment that passed the House earlier this year (which Paul and Cory Booker also introduced in the Senate), this proposal would have a very real legal impact.  I think it would also raise some interesting legal questions, if it were to pass (which I suspect is unlikely.)

Paul's proposal provides (in relevant part):

(a) State Medical Marijuana Laws.--Notwithstanding section 708 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 903) or any other provision of law (including regulations), a State may enact and implement a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use.
 
 
(b) Prohibition on Certain Prosecutions.--No prosecution may be commenced or maintained against any physician or patient for a violation of any Federal law (including regulations) that prohibits the conduct described in subsection (a) if the State in which the violation occurred has in effect a law described in subsection (a) before, on, or after the date on which the violation occurred[.]
 
At first blush, the amendment's protections seem somewhat limited.  They apply only to medical marijuana patients and physicians.  But most federal medical marijuana prosecutions have targeted providers--dispensary operators, growers, etc.  
 
When it comes to patients and physicians, however, the immunity this amendment would grant appears to be quite broad.  The law would prevent prosecutions "for a violation of any Federal law . . . that prohibits the conduct described in subsection (a)" in a medical marijuana state.  And what conduct does subsection (a) describe?  "[T]he use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use[.]"
 
As a result, I think Paul's amendment would almost certainly immunize from federal prosecution patients and physicians (but not others) who work in the medical marijuana industry.  In oher words, the federal government could not "commence[] or maintain[]" a prosecution against a patient or physician who ran a dispensary or a medical marijuana grow operation that was in compliance with state law.   
 
Now here is where I think interpreting Paul's proposal gets especially tricky: would it protect only physicians and patients who were acting in compliance with their state's law?  Or, would passage of a state medical marijuana law (even an incredibly restrictive one) trigger a broad-based protection for any and all patient and physician "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use"?
 
Though I imagine the intent of the amendment is to make the federal protection coextensive with activity authorized under state law, I think its language is far from clear on the issue.  
 
Again, take a look back at subsection (a).  It says that "a State may enact and implement a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use."  Subsection (b), meanwhile, says the government cannot commence or maintain a prosecution "for a violation of any Federal law . . . that prohibits the conduct described in subsection (a)".
 
The only conduct that is deccribed in subsection (a) is the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use."  Period.  There is no express requirement that the conduct be done "in compliance with state law" in order to qualify for the protection.  On this reading, so long as a patient or physician's marijuana activity was "for medical use" and done in a state that had some sort of medical marijuana law, however narrow, the protection would kick in.  (As a result, for example, a patient in a state with a CBD-only law might claim protection from federal prosecution for selling marijuana to a veteran with PTSD.)  
 
To be sure, one could argue that Paul's provision implicitly limits the protected "conduct" to that which is "authorize[d]" by a state.  But I don't think this argument would be a slam dunk.  My inclination is that the statute is ambiguous on this point and would have to be litigated.  
 
All of the above is based on, admittedly, a very quick read and reaction to the language, so I may be off base.  (I'd love to hear any and all thoughts in the comments.)  But, at the very least, it seems to me that this amendment could be a bit clearer about exactly what conduct it protects and under what circumstances.
 
I should add that even if the language of the amendment does have some ambiguity, I suspect that it is being introduced for political effect more than anything else (both for Paul to generate media buzz for his position on the issue and in order to try to gain momentum for federal reform by raising the profile of the issue in the Senate).  Since the likelihood it will pass is slim to none, it is understandable that Paul's staff might not have committed a bunch of its time to finely tune the proposal's language.  
 
Last, details aside, Paul's amendment is another sign of the shifting politics on marijuana reform.  As Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority put it: "with five U.S. House floor votes in a row coming out favorably for cannabis policy reformers over the past few months, we expect to see more senators realizing that getting onto the winning side of this issue is a smart move."

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2014/07/rand-paul-amendment-to-block-certain-federal-prosecutions-in-medical-marijuana-states-would-raise-in.html

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